EU eyes pesticide ban over bee scare

BRUSSELS (AFP) - A key committee of EU experts was meeting on Monday to mull a two-year ban on pesticides blamed for a sharp and worrying decline in bee populations.

European Union sources have told AFP that a decision to suspend the use of certain pesticides is likely following the closed-door talks between experts from the 27 member nations.

In the countdown to Monday's decision, battle-lines have sharpened between environmentalists defending the bees, and farmers and pharmaceutical firms opposed to the ban on three pesticides from the so-called "neonicotonoid" family.

Internet-based global campaigner Avaaz, which has gathered 2.5 million signatures to save the insect, plans to float a giant plastic honey bee over EU headquarters to hammer home its message.

Pesticide producers Bayer of Germany and Switzerland's Sygenta, the top player on the global agrichemical market, reject claims that their products are at fault in the fall of bee numbers and say studies behind the suggested ban are based on flawed science.

Copa Cogeca, which represents European farmers and European agri-cooperatives, last week urged any decision delayed until next year, saying that even a temporary ban would cause 2.8 billion euros (S$4.5 billion) of losses to farmers and a further 2 billion euros to the EU economy due to a fall in seed production and rising feed costs due to a need to increase imports.

A longterm suspension, Copa Cogeca said, would cost 50,000 jobs and 17 billion euros.

In February, a study published in the Journal of Science showed that falling numbers of wild bees and other pollinating insects are hurting global agriculture.

Bees account for 80 per cent of plant pollination by insects. Without them, many crops would be unable to bear fruit or would have to be pollinated by hand.

The gathering of Monday's "appeals committee" was called after an EU vote earlier this year failed to produce a large enough majority in favour of a proposal by the European Commission - the EU executive - for a two-year moratorium on the allegedly deadly pesticides.

Under EU procedure, if Monday's vote also fails to produce a clear qualified majority vote, the Commission has the authority to proceed on its own with the ban.

"The most likely outcome will be the same as last time ... and in that case, the Commission will decide to put the ban into operation," an EU source said.

The Commission wants the insecticides banned for use on four major crops - maize (corn), rape seed, sunflowers and cotton - in a bid to protect the bee population.

Experts isolated three compounds causing concern - clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam, known as neonicotinoids - which the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said earlier this year posed "disturbing" risks to bees and other pollinating insects vital for human food production.

Avaaz campaigners are concerned however that a proposal by Hungary, a major honey producer, may water down the European Commission proposal.

"Hungary, backed by the UK, is trying to insert a lethal loophole into the EU ban on bee-killing pesticides," which would allow countries to continue using neonicotinoids "in circumstances deemed to have no adverse effect on bees", said Iain Keith of Avaaz.

In the March vote, 13 nations voted in favour of the ban - Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Italy, Latvia, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden.

Nine nations voted against - Austria, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Lithuania, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia - and five abstained - Britain, Bulgaria, Finland, Estonia Germany.

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