Publication - When Science and Biodiversity Meet Economic Interests

Updated: Aug 27

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In Europe, there is a legal obligation for conducting a proper risk assessment on the impact that products have on human and animal health. It is a responsibility of public authorities at European and national levels to ensure this evaluation before products reach the market. This obligation also applies to plant protection products, including their impact on the health of bees and pollinators in general. In the case of possible risks to bees, it has been clear that a more comprehensive analysis is necessary. Fortunately, methods for risk assessment have seen significant developments over the last decade, particularly with the publication of the European Food Safety Authority's Guidance on the risk assessment of plant protection products on bees (Apis mellifera, Bombus spp. and solitary bees) in 2013 [1].

However, as frequently denounced by BeeLife in the last 6 years, this "Bee Guidance Document" has not yet been adopted by a wide majority of member states, missing the opportunity to improve risk assessment for pesticides that may harm bees and other pollinators. Considering the engagement by the European Commission through projects such as the EU Pollinators Initiative [2], the adoption of this important document could be a milestone in improving bee protection. On July 16 and 17, the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals Food and Feed (ScoPAFF) will meet and member states representatives could finally reach an agreement to adopt this document. To celebrate this occasion, BeeLife is publishing its most recent document portraying the history and current situation regarding EFSA's Bee Guidance and the opportunities that arise from its adoption.

Thanks to the diligent work by EFSA, who paired with expert bee ecotoxicologists and called for public consultations, the guidelines for risk assessment published in 2013 resulted as the most effective methodology to date, which would allow us to analyse and interpret the toxicology and exposure data required by EU law, for the risks which pesticides pose to bees and pollinators. This methodology takes into account key findings such as the need to measure not only the impact of pesticides on individual bees but also the overall impact on the colony for social bee species. Besides, it also recognises the multiple ways that bees may be exposed to pesticides in the field, including the spread through dust particles and water.

Taking into account the exhaustive work presented in the Guidance Document, toxicology experts, along with beekeepers such as the members of BeeLife, applauded the guidelines and welcomed the possibility of an improved risk assessment for pesticides that potentially affect bees. Nonetheless, they have witnessed for 6 years how these guidelines are tossed aside based on false or misleading arguments. On the brink of a new opportunity for member states to adopt EFSA's document, BeeLife reviews some of these arguments.

One of the main arguments against the adoption of the Bee Guidance Document is that it would make registering any insecticides impossible and many fungicides and herbicides would be subject to very tough standards. This argument, however, is untrue, since the guidelines focus on risk assessment rather than risk management. What the guidelines entail is a better understanding of the pesticide to ensure its safety once present in the environment. With this information, risk managers would have a better comprehension of the product, thus establishing the possibility of safer use methods for farmers.

Another common argument is that the guidelines have unrealistic trigger values which fail to distinguish the substances that require additional testing in the field. This argument is also untrue. The error lies in the assumption that trigger values would immediately call for field tests. With inexpensive laboratory tests, risk assessors can already determine the risk of that the active substance poses to bees. The fact that further tests such as tunnel or field trials are required does not mean that the pesticide 'failed' the risk assessment and that it will not be authorised.

Other arguments against the adoption of the Bee Guidance Document are also reviewed in the latest publication by BeeLife. Besides, it also introduces a more extensive historical review, taking into account the urgency for acquiring a better understanding of the impact that pesticides have on bees before they reach the market. This publication is coming at a time when change is possible, and member states have the chance to cooperate towards improved conditions for pollinators and their role in our environment. There is much to gain from the application of thorough scientific protocols to ensure the safety of bees. It is, after all, the possibility to adequately respond to the legal obligation to protect human and animal health.

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[1] European Food Safety Authority, 2013. EFSA Guidance Document on the risk assessment of plant protection products on bees (Apis mellifera, Bombus spp. and solitary bees). EFSA Journal 2013;11(7):3295, 268 pp., doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2013.3295 Available online: www.efsa.europa.eu/efsajournal

[2] http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/conservation/species/pollinators/index_en.html