By Martha Moss - 23rd March 2011
MEPs, scientists and EU officials came together in the European parliament on Wednesday to discuss the potential risks of plant protection products on bees. Speaking at the event, ALDE deputy Chris Davies called on the EU to invoke the precautionary principle in relation to certain pesticides, which could result in their withdrawal from the market were they found to constitute a health risk. Some studies have suggested that neonicotinoid insecticides could be a factor behind Europe's 30 per cent decline in bee numbers seen in recent years.
Davies, a member of parliament's environment committee, said, "In order for the precautionary principle to be invoked there has to be scientific justification.
"It is argued that there is no proven scientific evidence of the causal link [between pesticides and bee decline], yet a number of studies suggest that this link does exist."
He acknowledged that the causal link has not been established, but said there was "sufficient evidence" for restrictions and prohibitions to be introduced by Italy, Slovenia, Germany and France.
"What more do you need to invoke the precautionary principle?" he said. "It is a precautionary principle after all, not a proven fact."
Greens MEP Michèle Rivasi spoke of an "urgent need" to address this issue. She said, "Bees carry out a job that mankind can never do - they transmit life freely."
Rivasi pointed to a recent UN report on bee decline, which warned over the "potentially disastrous decline in bees".
"The poisoning of bees could be a result of human activity, such as environmental degradation," she said.
She added, "Citizens are beginning to raise the alarm, with 1.2 million signing a petition calling for certain insecticides to be banned."
Fellow Greens deputy Keith Taylor highlighted the economic value of the pollination work performed by honey bees.
He said, "The total economic value of insect pollination worldwide is estimated at €153bn, that's 9.5 per cent of world agricultural output."
Describing the decline in colonies as a "real and significant threat", he said that many agricultural products are pollinated by bees.
"The cause of the bee loss is undoubtedly a synergy between many factors, including the varroa disruptor mite, climate change, lower bee immunity and pesticides.
"It's important to have an extensive risk assessment of the impact on bees of new and existing pesticides."
Ecotoxicologist Luc Belzunces, who specialises in bees, said that Europe's 2800 bee families participate in the reproduction of 80 per cent of flowering plants.
He spoke of a decline over the past 30 years in parallel with the "modernisation of agriculture".
"Among the dozens of reasons for decline is the human impact on the environment," he said, warning that this could lead to a collapse in food resources.
Other factors include illnesses and the use of pollutants and pesticides, he said. He added, "We know that pesticides have altered the ecosystems and I don't know how bees will escape.
"We think that pesticides and illnesses are major causes in the decline of bees."
However, a spokesman for the European Crop Protection Association, which represents the pesticide industry, stressed the need for appropriate scientific studies into the issue.
"There are complex issues related to what is happening and it is extremely premature to point the finger at the pesticide industry," he told TheParliament.com.
"The question is how to manage the needs of general agriculture with bees."
He added, "We are growing food, it's important. We, agriculture, the crop science industry, are trying to do it as responsibly as possibly.
"There is no conspiracy to profit by the destruction of bees. We want to balance out the benefits with the risks.
"A lot of people are saying the industry has decided to profit off the backs of bees."
Meanwhile, writing in the latest edition of the Parliament Magazine, European agriculture and rural development commissioner Dacian Ciolos said the EU was taking "concrete steps to better understand and to reverse" the decline in bee populations.
"As far as European agriculture is concerned, it has been estimated that pollinators contribute at least €22bn each year to the sector, with 84 per cent of crops needing insect pollination, and more than 80 per cent of wild flowers needing pollinators to reproduce," he wrote.
EU action to tackle the problem included setting up a reference laboratory to coordinate research, a pilot surveillance programme and a review of the EU animal health rules for bees, he added.