UNAF:  French Beekeepers' 25 Year Fight Against Systemic Insecticides

UNAF, the National Union Of French Beekeepers, have produced an information fact sheet documenting their 25 year fight against systemic insecticides, the manufacturers and the EU regulatory system enabling their approval. 

Neonicotinoids were introduced at the beginning of the 1990s, and since then, about 300,000 hives perish each year in France, according to the fact sheet.

In addition, honey yields have declined in France, whilst imports have increased.

Legal battles began.  Between 1998 and 2019, UNAF initiated or intervened in over 20 proceedings against these insecticides, their authorizations, the manufacturers and the French government.

Small battles won, but not the war

A number of battles have been won, but not the war.  For example:

  • 1999 – the suspension in France of Gaucho (imidacloprid) for use on sunflowers.
  • 2004 – the suspension in France of Gaucho for use on corn.
  • 2005 – use of Friponil banned on French fields.

And later, thanks to an inquiry by EFSA (European Food Standards Agency), and following tremendous lobbying from citizens and beekeepers across Europe, the inadequacy of the EU regulatory system for insecticides was fully exposed. 

In particular, it was very clear that it was inadequate for systemic insecticides, and that regulatory tests failed to properly investigate the areas they were meant to, in order to assess risk to pollinators.

However, to add insult to injury, despite the release of the EFSA report in 2012, it is astonishing, given the condemnation of neonicotinoids that it was not until 2018 that three of them were banned for outdoor use (but not indoor use) by the EU: imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin, leaving the others on the market. 

This slow move to restrict neonics had begun in small stages with restrictions to use on some crops from 2013.  

Enter the next generation neonicotinoids

Call me cynical, yet, because of my industry background, neither the delayed ban nor the introduction and EU approval of next generation systemic insecticides were surprising. 

In August 2015, the EU approved systemic neurotoxin, sulfoxaflor by DowAgrosciences.  As I write in 2019, it is still approved for use in the EU. 

Although working in a very similar way to neonicotinoids (as a systemic insecticide), it was not categorized as a neonicotinoid for EU regulatory purposes, and was wafted through with a nod of approval.

From an agrochemical industry perspective, I reckon the timing and phasing of the bans of the older ones (off patent – or soon to be -  so probably not so profitable for the original producer) and the introduction of the new ones in a different category, was very smooth indeed – even slick.

Then in November 2015, the EU approved a further neurotoxin – flupyradifuron, followed by cyantraniliprole in 2016.

A small victory for French beekeepers again in 2018

Following further action from UNAF, the French legislator extended the scope of the neonicotinoids ban in France to include molecules with the same action, thus banning sulfoxaflor and flupyradifuron. 

In theory then, sulfoxaflor is approved by the EU, but member states can put in place their own actions to ban the use of the chemical. 

This can, of course be challenged by manufacturers, and EU regulatory approval surely puts them in a stronger position than we'd like.

Some irony

Whilst French beekeepers eventually gained their ban on sulfoxaflor, it’s ironic that it was a French MEP from Marine LePenn’s party who tried to prevent it from being approved in the first place, and a French socialist MEP who successfully campaigned to block that action, enabling sulfoxaflor to be approved.  

UNAF parting comment

UNAF state that the battle continues in France, Europe and worldwide.  They make the point that in Europe, even the bans are under threat because EU member states can adopt abusive derogations in order to continue use. 

They are of course, correct.  However, this would not be the case if such derogations were not allowed by the EU in the first place. 

The point would also be irrelevant had the EU regulatory bodies learned from the EFSA investigation, and refused to grant approval.

After all, sulfoxaflor is not approved in the USA.

So why did the EU approve them? 
Why is there not an outright withdrawal of approval?  
Why doesn’t the EU act more strongly and properly on the EFSA recommendations? 
Why did the EU not ensure the regulatory procedures were robust in the first place?

The questions continue.