It's official - the European Union has voted to ban pesticides deemed harmful to bees.
Three chemicals called neonicotinoids will be affected: imidacloprid and clothianidin, manufactured by Bayer pharmaceuticals, and thiamethathoxam from Syngenta. They'll be prohibited from being used in the EU for a minimum of 2 years. A number of countries, including the UK, officially opposed the ban on grounds that the evidence is inconclusive. The BBC has an excellent round-up of the controversy here.
We agree that it's always important to gather the facts before you make a decision - but this case is a little different. This time, the stakes are incredibly high. What's at risk isn't just the wellbeing of a beloved variety of insect - it's also the bulk of the human food chain.
Albert Einstein famously said:
"If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, Man would only have 4 years to live."
Not all of what Einstein said was rocket science - he was notorious for over-exaggeration - but in this case, his concerns are well-founded. Around a third of all global farming output depends on animal pollination - chief among those creatures, the busy bee. We depends on bees to produce 80% of our flowering crops. They're that important. And they're in decline. The phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder has been hitting European bee populations hard for the last decade. It's still not known exactly what is causing it - but its rise roughly tallies with the use of neonicotinoids.
We don't have the technology to artificially replicate the work of bees as pollinators - yet. Maybe that will change, but it won't change soon. Right now, we are utterly dependent on bees.
Let's talk about the pesticides themselves. One criticism of the ban is that it will push farmers towards the chemicals that neonicotinoids replaced - the pesticides from the bad old days, proven to be far more harmful to the environment as a whole. This would be a valid criticism if there weren't alternative chemicals and pest control strategies that were relatively environmentally friendly and had no apparent effect on the health of bee populations. In fact, there are (PDF). Recent country-specific suspensions of neonicotinoids didn't lead to a reversion to the bad old ways. There are alternatives - and they work.
With all this in mind, it's hard to avoid concluding that the opposition to the ban is primarily driven by economics. Some people regard a lack of universally agreed-upon confirmation that these pesticides are bad for bees, coupled with a lack of understanding of what is triggering Colony Collapse Disorder, as a valid reason to keep using these chemicals. They consider the risk of further harming bee populations - and by extension, risking damaging Europe's agricultural output - as a risk worth taking because of the benefits of continuing to manufacture and distribute neonicotinoids. Unsurprisingly, this is the line that Bayer and Syngenta are taking. The European Food Safety Authority has decided otherwise.
So what do you think?
ps. Want to do your bit at home for your local bee populations? Test out some of these!