This is part of the book “Stéphane Foucart et les néonicotinoïdes. The World and disinformation 1“, where I present the reasoning developed by the journalist in the corpus. What is said in this chapter is my view on what the journalist writes. All quotes are translated (by me), except the ones marked between [ ] in the french version (french quotes are to numerous to be marked in this one).

Political actions to repair the consequences of the flaws in these tests would be insufficient and overdue. We would see it first with the 2013 moratorium, but also with the reform of assessment tests which has still not been completed. The European Court of Auditors also criticized in a report of July 9, 2020 the ineffectiveness of the European Commission’s measures to protect wild pollinators, to which indicators of success or resources have not been allocated. (61)

a. A late and ineffective moratorium

The moratorium decided in 2013 by the European Union banning many uses of 3 NNI and fipronil between December 1, 2013 and 2015 would be a late and insufficient measure. (8) (45)

Indeed, it would take years for NNIs to disappear from the soil, even if the moratorium was total. (8) Worse, the decision would “probably do nothing” as the moratorium is less than the environmental life of NNIs. (13) They should have been banned long ago, being of considerable toxicity and the unacceptable nature of the risk posed by imidacloprid to bees having been known since the 2003 CST report. (9) (13) (45)

Moreover, the 2013 NNI moratorium would not have weakened the decline of bees. (47) Far from being evidence of NNI safety, this is due to:

  • The limitation of this moratorium to certain uses and certain NNIs, which has allowed significant amounts of NNIs to be used in France (47), farmers have simply resorted to other NNIs, such as thiaclopride. (61);
  • the fact that much of the NNI remains in the soil and persists in it, contaminating later crops and wild flora (47);

Finally, the ban allowed Member States to provide for derogations, which many have done. (61) Thus, this moratorium could, on the contrary, be “interpreted as a stinging defeat.” (9) The final ban did not occur until 2018, 24 years after the first alerts. (45)

b. Failure to reassess assessment tests

Despite the 2012 EFSA report (Boesten et coll. 2012) denouncing the long-known regulatory loopholes and proposing guidelines in 2013, the rules have not changed significantly. (58) In October 2013, consideration of a draft development of new rules was postponed. (11)

As Member States failed to come to an agreement, they entrusted “to a technical committee unknown to the public”, the SCOPAFF, “the difficult choice to choose the new authorization rules for pesticides.” This choice would have to be made between “bees and pollinating insects on the one hand, and the agrochemical industry on the other”. (48) Its discussions are said to be confidential, which has been widely criticized by NGOs and politicians. (48) (67) Its work resulted in the adoption of an “update of the principles for evaluating the effects of pesticides on bees” on July 17, 2019. However, this text would ignore the essential of the EFSA recommendations, the study of which is postponed. (54)

In the middle of summer 2019, the EU is said to have “quietly postponed” the introduction of new risk assessment tests against advice from EFSA and the scientific community. (56) On October 23, the European Parliament “adopted by an overwhelming majority (533 for, 67 against and 100 abstentions) an objection to the reform of the principles for assessing the environmental risks of plant protection products.” (58)

Following a request from the European executive, EFSA proposed on June 22, 2020, 4 approaches to reform risk assessment. 3 of them would be to “lower the levels of protection”. (61) It is one of the least protective which was chosen by the Member States. It would “consider as acceptable a reduction in the size of a bee colony exposed to a pesticide, if this reduction remains within a “range of natural variability”. This would be calculated using an algorithm, “Beehave“, co-developed by Syngenta. As the “background” pollution is already affecting beehive mortality, this would underestimate the toxicity of pesticides. This method would also not allow an assessment of the risks to wild pollinators. (67)

On 23 September 2020, EFSA reportedly presented the progress of the reform of the “risk assessment of pesticides for foragers” to “associations representing civil society”. The latter were alarmed, one of them, Future Generations, going so far as to call the changes “catastrophic”. (67)

SCOPAFF met on March 24 and 25, 2021. According to MEP Pascal Canfin, the discussion focused on the mortality considered acceptable in a colony following exposure to a pesticide. Its percentage was to vary “between 7%, a position defended by France, Slovakia and Sweden, and 25% which is defended in particular by Spain and Hungary”. The NGO Pollinis warned of the danger that criteria more permissive than those established in 2013 would be adopted. “This would irreparably precipitate the ongoing disappearance of these insects essential to European cultures instead of remedying it.” (71)

These difficulties can be explained by the scale of the stakes: an “impact analysis conducted by manufacturers and published in July [2018] on a sample of a few dozen molecules, “79% of the uses of all herbicides, 75 % of fungicide uses and all uses of 92% of insecticides” do not pass the chronic toxicity tests provided for by the EFSA guidelines.” (48)

c. Political struggles in France

The position of the French government is unstable on the issue of NNI. After the government opposed the law proposed by Delphine Batho and Gérard Bapt providing for a total ban on NNIs in France in 2016, Ségolène Royal, then Minister of Ecology, announced to propose a national action plan in favor of pollinators and extend the 2013 moratorium to other substances and other uses. The government would be pushed in this direction by the growing mobilization of civil society: a petition from the Fondation Nicolas Hulot FNH and Générations Futures calling for the withdrawal of the NNI thus collected 50,000 signatures in three weeks. (22)

Disagreement within the government

In 2017, an interministerial working document studying the possibility of eliminating by ordinance certain restrictions on the use of plant protection products, in particular to reverse the ban on NNIs.

The then Minister of Agriculture, Stéphane Travert, had confirmed this intention, ruling that the ban on NNI was contrary to European law and that there was no existing alternative. The then Ecology Minister, Nicolat Hulot, responded via Twitter by rejecting the possibility. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced that the government had decided not to reverse the ban on NNI, which came into effect in September 2018. (31) (32)

Postures and impostures

If France affirmed itself, within the framework of the negotiations around the modification of the health tests, as favorable to the tests proposed by the EFSA, its position would be ambiguous, the pesticides based on sulfoxaflor having been authorized by the ANSES “on the faith of obsolete tests”. (48)

In the same vein, among the 36 deputies who signed a column entitled “Bees are essential”, most of them have, in fact, voted or supported proposals promoting the use of pesticides. (49)

Looking back to 2020

Following the beet yellows epidemic transmitted by an infestation of aphids (Myzus persicae) in spring 2020, the Ministry of Agriculture announced on August 6 a support plan for the sector providing in particular for exemptions allowing the use of NNI. (64)

A bill allowing exemptions from the ban on NNI was presented on September 3, 2020. This would be justified, according to the ministry, by the fact that beets are harvested before flowering (64) and that the ban of NNI threatens 40,000 jobs. (65) The Confédération paysanne nonetheless argued that it would be market pressure, and not jaundice, which would weigh the most on the sector. The latter would be exposed to three structural problems: “end of quotas, market deregulation and competition from world sugar”. (68) The text would not refer to beet verbatim, and NGOs and environmentalists fear that it could benefit other crops, such as maize. (65) D.Batho commented:

“This bill is based on a form of obscurantism […]. It ignores the scientific data available and in particular ignores the phenomenon of the disappearance of insects that we are witnessing. […] The sugar beet sector has had several years to adapt and find alternatives, but it has done nothing, because it has always lived with the prospect of succeeding in getting around the ban on neonics: since 2016, it has systematically been the same arguments that are put forward to reintroduce these substances”. (65)

The bill was due to begin consideration on October 5 under “strong pressure from civil society”. Thus, called not to vote this bill Nicolat Hulot, about thirty environmental organizations (WWF, Greenpeace, LPO), the Confédération paysanne and about sixty researchers specializing in NNI. The latter denounced “a serious error, under the pretext of minor or inaccurate reasons, this in view of the immense stakes”. (68) Despite this, the project was adopted on October 27, 2020. (69) One of the challenges of the new law would be the issue of post crops to treated beets. Farmers demanded the right to replant corn without delay. On February 5, they obtained this authorization on condition of not treating an area of 8 meters on the outskirts of the plots. The study on which this figure was based was in fact misinterpreted. (70)

Page bibliography:

  • Boesten, J., Bolognesi, C., Brock, T., Capri, E., Hardy, A., Hart, A., Hirschernst, K., Bennekou, S., Luttik, R., Klein, M., Machera, K., Ossendorp, B., Annette, Petersen, Pico, Y., Schaeffer, A., Sousa, J.P., Steurbaut, W., Stromberg, A., Vleminckx, C., 2012. EFSA Panel on Plant Protection Products and their Residues, scientific opinScientific Opinion on the science behind the development of a risk assessment of Plant Protection Products on bees, EFSA Journal.
  • Doucet-Personeni, C., M.P. Halm, F. Touffet, A. Rortais, and G. Arnold. “Imidaclopride Utilisé En Enrobage de Semences (Gaucho®) et  Troubles Des Abeilles.” Comité Scientifique et Technique de l’Etude Multifactorielle des Troubles des Abeilles (CST), 2003.