March 4. 2024. 10:20

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Commission’s verdict still out on EU court ruling on bee-toxic pesticides

After a recent EU court decision to block the emergency use of bee-toxic neonicotinoid pesticides, the European Commission is still unclear on what exactly this ruling means in practice.

With the ruling, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) confirmed that member states will no longer be allowed to grant derogations temporarily permitting the use of seeds treated with ‘expressly banned’ plant protection products by EU law.

The plant protection products in question – imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam – belong to a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which are chemically similar to nicotine and target insects.

Neonicotinoids have come under fire in recent years for contributing to the decline of bees by disrupting their sense of orientation, memory and mode of reproduction.

EU Court puts end to emergency use of bee-toxic pesticides

The EU’s highest court ruled on Thursday (19 January) that EU countries should no longer be allowed temporary exemptions for banned, bee-toxic neonicotinoid pesticides, putting half of all such derogations to an end.

But despite the ruling, the situation is too complex to be clear-cut for policymakers and stakeholders.

For green campaign groups, the phrasing of the ruling – which refers to the “placing on the market and use of seeds treated with those substances have been expressly prohibited by an implementing regulation” – indicates that this should put an end once and for all to all emergency pesticide derogations.

On the other hand, industry figures maintain that the ruling relates specifically to the practice of seed coating – the preemptive application of these substances to the seed instead of being sprayed on the crop – given it does not respond to the urgency of the situation as it is pre-planned.

Asked by EURACTIV whether the ruling concerns all EU-banned pesticide substances, a Commission spokesperson said 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”.

But, according to the NGO Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN), the considerations of the EU judgement are clear and mean that all pesticide derogations must end, as none of them can be deemed a “real emergency”.

Therefore, the PAN campaigners call on the European Commission to “take the necessary steps and make sure that all pesticide derogations will be annulled right away”, in a statement.

On the other hand, CropLife Europe, representing the EU’s plant protection sector, said that the court’s ruling “clarifies when emergency authorisations may be granted by member states”.

“The court focused its deliberations on seed-treated expressly banned substances,” the representative said.

EU sugar sector up in arms over decision to restrict bee-toxic pesticides

The EU sugar industry has fired back against an EU court ruling meaning member states are no longer allowed temporary exemptions for banned neonicotinoid pesticides, while other farming bodies maintain this is both workable and necessary given their bee-toxic credentials.

Other bones of contention

Another point of contention is that the ruling does not specify whether it is referring to the EU or the international market, creating a question mark 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”.

The spokesperson added that the Commission “continues to analyse the judgement” to clarify exactly what this means in practice.

As for the member states that have already issued derogations for EU-banned pesticides
for 2023, it also remains unclear how such requests will be handled.

“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.