Neonicotinoids in the EU Spotlight

Neonicotinoids in the EU Spotlight

By Jenny Brunton, Senior European Policy Advisor

Earlier this month, the European Court of Justice ruled that EU national authorities are not permitted to grant derogations on the emergency use of seeds coated with a group of neonicotinoids, imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam. The ECJ said that the EU’s rules on emergency use prohibited national authorities from approving the marketing and use of seeds treated with banned substances.

Why are neonicotinoids important?

Neonic seed treatments provide farmers with an economical means of protecting seeds and seedlings against early season insect pests and diseases. This results in stronger and more uniform stands, healthier plants and higher crop yields. Neonicotinoids are highly valued by growers who use them in integrated pest management (IPM) programs.

Treating seeds with neonics can protect seedlings for up to 10 weeks, a vulnerable stage in their lives. This also reduces the need for multiple pesticide sprays.

Since the ruling, there has been a flurry of activity with environmental NGOs calling for the end of all emergency authorisations of plant protection products. On the other hand, industry maintains that the ruling relates specifically to the practice of seed coating. The situation is too complex to be clear-cut for both policymakers and stakeholders.

A Commission spokesperson stated that the EU executive is “currently further analysing the judgement”, stressing that, as any preliminary ruling, the court judgement is an “interpretation of EU law”.

There is also contention over whether treated seeds can be produced on EU soil and then exported to third countries. On this point, the Commission spokesperson remained vague, reiterating that the court ruled that it is “not allowed to place on the market the pesticides for a use which has been explicitly prohibited”.

Uncertainty remains over how the Member States that had already received a derogation for 2023 will proceed. These countries include Czech Republic, Spain, Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Finland. “Member states have to interpret the EU rules in line with the court’s judgement,” the spokesperson said, adding that the EU executive is currently evaluating its consequences on how emergency authorisations should be granted, including those already granted and with regard to non-neonicotinoid pesticides.

Following the ruling, the French Agriculture Minister confirmed that sugar beet farmers will not be granted a derogation allowing use of seeds coated with neonicotinoid pesticides. Marc Fesneau announced that he would not submit a request to the special supervisory board for a third year of derogation from the neonicotinoid ban. The Minister instead announced that a fund would be set up to compensate farmers impacted by the virus yellows. He also called on the EU to ban imports from third countries of sugar and sugar-derived products produced with the use of the banned neonics.  

Commission reduces MRLs for neonicotinoids

Last week, the Commission adopted new rules which will, once applicable, lower the Maximum Residues Levels (MRLs) of two pesticides in food. Assessments by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have shown that the two chemicals, belonging to the group of neonicotinoid pesticides, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, pose a high risk to bees and contribute to the global decline of pollinators. For this reason, their outdoor use was banned in the EU in 2018. The new rules will lower existing MRLs for these substances to the lowest level that can be measured with the latest technologies. They will apply to all products produced in the EU, but also to imported food and feed products.

Hear from Dr Chris Hartfield, NFU's Senior regulatory Advisor on what this would mean for the UK.

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