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Beekeepers "appalled" Govt against pesticide restriction proposal

Nine countries, including Ireland, have opposed a plan to restrict the use of three neonicotinoids linked to dwindling bee populations in Europe.

AGRICULTURE MINISTER Coveney is helping to block a landmark EU proposal to restrict the use of pesticides linked to dwindling bee populations in Europe.

Irish beekeepers and conservationists say they’re “appalled” and “flabbergasted” that the government voted against the European Commission’s proposal to restrict the use of three neonicotinoids.

Nine countries opposed the plan at a Brussels meeting last month, while five abstained. The combined voting weight of the remaining 13 countries was not enough to achieve a qualified majority, so another ballot will be held on 29 April.

Since being introduced in the 1990s, neonicotinoids have become some of the world’s most widely used pesticides. They work by damaging insects’ nervous systems.

A mounting body of evidence indicates that exposure to the chemicals, which are closely related to nicotine, leave bees disorientated and unable to find their way back to their hives or to forage, among other effects. Millions of hectares of treated crops like oilseed rape and maize in Europe now pose an acute risk to bees.

Minister Coveney said he had “technical concerns” about some of the proposed restrictions, including on using the chemicals at certain times of the year and on crops that are not attractive to bees. Crops of this kind for which neonicotinoids could be banned Europe-wide include spring-planted cereals.

Responding to a parliamentary question from United Left Alliance TD Clare Daly, Minister Coveney said he also believed it should be member states’ own decision whether to ban or approve pesticides.

The Department of Agriculture declined to comment on how Ireland will vote on 29 April. If member states again fail to reach a majority in favour or against, the commission will cast the deciding vote, meaning the restrictions would be implemented. But the position of the two biggest member states, Germany and UK, could be a decisive factor.

Both abstained last time but remain under pressure from their pesticides industries and farmers.

Irish bees

The Irish Wildlife Trust and the Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Association have called on the Minister to change his position, linking neonicotinoids to declining bee numbers in Ireland. The department declined to comment on whether it has done any research into the use of neonicotinoids in Ireland and their possible effects on bees.

The pesticides registry shows that two of the three pesticides covered by the proposal are authorised for use in Ireland and can be used on winter cereals and sugar beet. Based on research from the European Food Safety Authority, the commission decided these uses are less dangerous to bees and its proposal includes special exemptions for them.

But seeds can also be imported to Ireland already coated with neonicotinoids. This is not the norm for cereals but is common for oilseed rape, according to a number of farmers and seed traders interviewed for this article. The pesticide works by spreading throughout the growing plant to all tissues including the flowers, pollen and nectar, putting foraging bees at risk.

A recent Teagasc report for the government on growing the tillage sector as part of Food Harvest 2020 named oilseed rape as one of the crops with the biggest potential for expansion. The area under cultivation could be increased by over 700 per cent, adding over €100m to the value of output.

The minister’s office declined to comment on whether his decision in Brussels was linked to expansion plans for the tillage sector, including for oilseed rape.

Neonicotinoid treatments are also currently permitted for ornamental flowers and for lawns and recreational fields, like sports pitches or golf courses.

It is difficult to know whether neonicotinoids pose the risk to bees in Ireland that they do Europe-wide. Oilseed rape is still a relatively small crop in Ireland, a country with a relatively small tillage sector. The area of land under oilseed rape cultivation in 2012 was around 16,000 hectares. By contrast, neonicotinoids are used on over 1m hectares in the UK, almost one third of the total planted area.

“For native bees, habitat loss is the problem in Ireland,” said Dr Úna Fitzpatrick of the National Biodiversity Data Centre. But there has been little research done on the effects of pesticides on Ireland’s bees, she added.

Irish honeybees are known to be affected by diseases and pests, particularly the varroa mite.

Another neonicotinoid pesticide, thiacloprid, which the commission does not propose to restrict, is used in many popular pesticide brands on sale in Irish garden centres. But it is far less toxic to bees than the three that may be restricted, according to evidence given by scientists to a UK parliamentary inquiry into the chemicals. One Dublin garden centre visited recently stocked six neonicotinoid products, only one of which was labelled as posing a risk to bees.

Minister Coveney received correspondence from the chemicals and farming sectors, as well as from NGOs and citizens ahead of the March vote, he said.

Read: Invasive species cost Ireland €261 million per year>

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