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Buzz-Kill: Controversial Pesticide Ban Falters in European Commission

Buzz-Kill: Controversial Pesticide Ban Falters in European Commission

Photograph by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Big Pharma on Friday won the first round of its fight to defeat a European proposal to ban a trio of commonly used pesticides suspected of killing honeybees. The closely watched measure, which calls for a European Union-wide moratorium on three types of neonicotinoid pesticides, failed to secure the needed votes from the 27 EU member states today, a result cheered by the manufacturers of the chemicals.

Despite today’s inconclusive vote, the European Commission says it isn’t backing down in its attempt to get the chemicals—two used in pesticides made by Bayer CropScience (BAYN:GR) and one by Syngenta (SYT)—either banned or restricted by this summer. “We have no intention of dropping this,” said Frédéric Vincent, the spokesman for the EC’s Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, which proposed the ban. He added the proposal, with or without revisions, could be scheduled for a revote by member states within the next two months.

Europe’s beekeepers like the odds. “The importance of today’s vote meant that the chemicals industry would have had to deliver a knockout blow, and they have not. After round one, we’re still in the game,” said Walter Haefeker, president of the European Professional Beekeepers Association.

Honeybees pollinate $200 billion worth of crops annually, making it a global imperative to find a cure for what’s called bee colony collapse disorder. The scientific community remains divided on why bees disappear in such wide numbers. Even so, the European Food Safety Authority in January recommended a highly controversial EU-wide ban on a trio of neonicotinoid pesticides, even as it acknowledged that there is no firm link between the chemicals and colony collapse disorder.

The EC would not break out how member states voted today. Environmental groups following the vote in Brussels, however, said the big blow came when Germany and the United Kingdom decided to abstain, putting the measure in a temporary legislative limbo.

“This is a cop-out by a significant number of European governments, including the U.K.,” said Paul de Zylva, who works on legislative policy for the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth Europe. “It means yet more dither and delay while our bee populations plummet.”

Meanwhile, Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, which have argued a ban would cost Europe’s agricultural sector $22 billion in lower crop yields over the next five years and could put 50,000 people out of work, welcomed today’s inconclusive vote. In a statement, Bayer CropScience called it “a clear recognition that there is no convincing argument against the continuing use of neonicotinoid-based products.” Syngenta added, “restricting the use of this vital crop protection technology will do nothing to help improve bee health.”

Warner writes about innovation for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @bernhardwarner.

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