Last week the CJEU (Court of Justice of the European Union) issued a ruling that is now threatening the beet industry. By ruling that the derogations allowing the use of pesticides that are otherwise banned on European territory are illegal, it has definitively deprived the sector of neonicotinoids use, the only insecticides that effectively protect beets against aphid-transmitted blight. The toxicity of these substances, their controversial nature, the jurisdiction over them, the causes of this maelstrom and the consequences for European agriculture… agricultural journalist Gil Riviere Wekstein answers all our questions.
The European Scientist: The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has just issued a ruling on clothianidin and thiamethoxam seed treatments. Can you remind us of their use, and for which crops they are useful?
Gil Riviere Wekstein: Clothianidin and thiamethoxam, as well as imidacloprid, are insecticides of the neonicotinoid family (NNI). They have been used worldwide since the 1990s, on almost all crops, and in many different ways. But by far the most effective method remains the coating of the seed with a tiny film of one of these active ingredients. That is to say in seed treatment. On the one hand, this permits fighting against seed-borne diseases, on the other hand, protecting young plants against parasites naturally present in the soil, and finally, ensuring protection against early attacks of diseases and parasites in vegetation.
The great advantage for the environment is that, unlike spraying, these treatment products are effective at very low doses, and above all, that to treat a field of 10,000 m2, only 100 m2 of soil are in contact with the active substance. Their introduction in agriculture is therefore a real progress for biodiversity.
For farmers, it further allows them to be absolutely certain that their crops will be protected in case of pest attack. They thus avoid numerous insecticide sprayings, which are no longer necessary, and they can be guaranteed a good yield.
Of course, these are insecticides which, quite naturally, have a certain toxicity on insects, including bees. Their use is therefore highly regulated.
However, they are not only authorized in agriculture. There are many NNI-based collars on the market for cats and dogs to protect them from fleas and ticks. Also, without necessarily knowing it – except by reading the labels of these collars – many pet owners are users of these neonicotinoids… There are certainly more NNI in the homes of the French than in the fields of farmers! And this has never been considered a problem.
TES.: But then, why are they being challenged among environmental movements?
GRW.: The anti-NNI movement started in France, when a handful of beekeepers attributed to these products the great bee deaths they were seeing, while other beekeepers, who let their bees forage on fields treated with NNI, mainly rapeseed and sunflower, did not suffer any mortality. This started a big controversy, but the question could not be definitively answered, because many other causes could also explain these massive mortalities. But this group of French beekeepers designated as the main culprits of their problem the famous NNIs, which were the ideal culprit, especially because of their obvious toxicity on bees, when they are in contact with the product.
At the beginning, the French environmental movement was not interested in the question, but it quickly understood the interest of questioning a technology so widespread in the agricultural model that it fights. This fight proved to be an obvious and very effective tool to weaken a model that the nebulous environmentalists would like to banish. Above all, since NNIs have been presented as “bee-killing” insecticides, as products of agrochemicals and productivist agriculture, it has become difficult for political leaders, whatever their faction, to defend them. Taking a position in favor of their use meant accepting the endangerment of pollinators in general and small bees in particular.
As a result, since the early 2000s, successive governments have worked to ban these products, first in France, then in Europe, which is now the only continent where they are banned. In the rest of the world, NNIs are used extensively, without the slightest problem.
TES.: Can you remind us of the background to this new court decision? What prompted this reversal?
GRW. : There is no reversal. The role of the CJEU is to interpret the law. In this particular case, the case was referred to it by the Belgian State, which had a dispute with the anti-pesticide association PAN Europe, the association Nature & Progrès Belgium and a beekeeper, who considered that the six authorizations for the use of NNI by way of derogation issued by the Belgian State had been granted “in an abusive manner”.
This system of derogations came into force because the European Union (EU) banned the use of NNIs under pressure from Member States, including France, which was very active. However, these same Member States then realized that these products were still irreplaceable, particularly for the protection of beets against aphids, which are the vectors of viruses that cause jaundice. Seventeen Member States, including France, therefore issued derogations to allow farmers to protect their crops. In fact, to correct a ban decision whose consequences they had not really measured…
PAN Europe, which is part of the ecology-degrowth movement, challenged the Belgian government, arguing that these derogations were not legal. Not surprisingly, the Court found that exemptions could not be granted for an active ingredient that had been “expressly” banned. Its reasoning is simple: if the EU considers that the use of NNIs is so dangerous that it justifies their prohibition, it should not be possible to circumvent this prohibition through the system of derogations. This applies to all EU countries and therefore all EU beet growers will be affected by this ruling. In other words, the entire sugar production in the EU is at risk!
TES. : Can you explain to us the basis of the “derogation” principle?
GRW. : In order for a farmer to use a plant protection product, the product must have a marketing authorization (MA). This is a long process involving on the one hand the EU, which validates the authorization for the active ingredient, and then each Member State depending on the product’s formulation and use. Thus, a product may have been authorized on apple trees in a particular formulation (a particular dosage for example), but not on pear trees because no application was made. However, if pear growers, having to face, for example, a punctual attack of an aggressor, want to use this product, they can ask for a derogation under very framed conditions. This is done, for example, by organic apple producers, who use every year pesticides based on azadirachtin (neem oil), while azadirachtin on apples has no MA, since this active ingredient, whose toxicity is proven, has never been authorized. Since organic producers cannot use synthetic insecticides, and there is nothing else known than neem oil to protect their orchards against certain pests, every year, for more than seven years, they use Article 53 of Regulation (EC) No. 1107/2009, which states that “in particular circumstances, a Member State may authorize, for a period not exceeding 120 days, the placing on the market of plant protection products for limited and controlled use, where such a measure is necessary because of a hazard that cannot be contained by other reasonable means”.
This is the same derogation system – Article 53 – that has been used by the 17 Member States since 2018 for NNI seed treatments. Except that, in this particular case, following the logic I described to you, the CJEU found that this was not in line with EU law.
TES. : What is the position of the French government on NNIs?
GRW. : France was the first country to ban the use of certain NNIs: the first ban dates back to 1999 and concerned imidacloprid on sunflower, and then, in 2004, on corn. In 2016, the “Law for the Reconquest of Biodiversity” marked a higher level by banning all NNIs as of September 1, 2018.
However, in 2020, following the disaster that this ban caused for beet cultivation, it was decided by law to grant derogations for another three years. The Minister of the Environment at the time, Barbara Pompili, justified this “temporary and very controlled” derogation by admitting that it was “the only possible short-term solution to avoid the collapse of the sugar industry in France”. As no other solution has been found since that date, Mrs Pompili’s words are still relevant today: without NNI, it will be “the collapse of the sugar industry in France”.
The beet growers who are now victims of this European ban were preceded by corn, rapeseed and sunflower growers. Paradoxically, for the latter, this ban has resulted in the replacement of these products by solutions that are much less environmentally friendly and, with weaker crop protection, has led to unnecessary yield losses. And above all, it has contributed to the weakening of our agricultural potential. But isn’t this precisely the objective of the environmentalist and degrowth movement?
TES. : Is the harmfulness of these products proven? What do the agencies say?
GRW.: Of course these products are proven to be harmful! They are insecticides, not jam. Except that the question is not whether they are toxic products, but whether they can be used in a way that does not endanger health and the environment. But while Europe answers in the negative, all the agencies in the rest of the world believe the opposite. Once again, Europe stands apart, probably because the leaders of our continent are those who have most integrated the thought model of the environmental movement. Unfortunately, agriculture is paying the price. This prevalence of ecology over everything else poses today a vast problem which could, in the very short term, bring our continent to a dramatic situation.
TES.: What are the consequences for European agriculture?
GRW.: By reducing the means of crop protection, Europe will end up reducing its capacity to produce cereals, fruit, vegetables and now sugar. In short, we will produce less, which is finally the common and declared objective of the Green Deal, the agricultural project of the EU and of the green-degrowth movement. Europe, accused of being “liberal” by some, is rather experiencing negative growth, which is quite a feat!
At first, farmers will lose out, then it will be consumers who will depend more and more on imported foodstuffs, and finally, it will be the environment that will suffer. Why the environment? Quite simply – and this is really a paradox – because, unless we accept a total collapse of our agriculture, producers will have to be given other means to protect their crops, which will necessarily involve the authorization of other insecticides. Moreover, by importing what we no longer produce, we will worsen the EU’s carbon footprint. It’s really utter nonsense!
TES.: Can this decision set a precedent for other substances?
GRW.: Be careful, it is not a decision. The CJEU does not decide anything. And it does not make policy. Its role is only to interpret the law according to the regulations that have been decided by the EU. That is, by the member states. Just like our Constitutional Council or our Council of State. In this case, its interpretation applies logically to all other substances that are “expressly” prohibited by a regulation. However, this does not call into question the role of Article 53 of the regulation, which remains valid.