On April 17th 2013, Mick's submitted a topical issue regarding the use of Neonicotinoids; pesticides which are having a major influence on the falling bee population. In his contribution, Mick points to scientific research which shows that these pesticides have adverse effects on insects such as bees. You can watch the discussing with Minister Coveney here while the full dialogue is below.
The next topical issue was raised by Deputy Wallace and concerns the decision to vote against a European Commission proposal to ban neonicotinoids, the pesticide blamed for the decline of the bee population. I hope I pronounced that correctly.
I would say the Acting Chairman's pronunciation is as good as mine. A series of high-profile scientific studies in the past year has increasingly linked a pesticide group known as neonicotinoids to harmful effects in bees, including huge losses in the numbers of queens produced, as well as large increases in disappeared bees, that is, those that failed to return from foraging trips. If ever there was an issue in which the precautionary principle ought to guide one's actions, the use of neonicotinoids certainly is one in which precaution should be one's guiding principle. Bees are far too important to crops to continue to take this risk. Beekeepers and environmental scientists have become increasingly concerned by the mass die-off of bees seen in recent years, including the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder. Increasingly, the finger has been pointed at these pesticides manufactured by the giant agribusiness companies Bayer, which I believe sponsors the football club, and Syngenta.
More than 300 separate scientific studies in the past three years have shown adverse effects on insects such as bees from these chemicals, which attack insects' nervous systems and are systemic, meaning they are taken up in every part of the plants in which they are applied. This means they are not simply present on the leaves and seeds that pest insects might eat but also are to be found in the pollen and nectar gathered by bees in the process of pollination. The European Commission has made proposals to ban the use of three of these neonicotinoid insecticides used in maize, rapeseed, sunflower and cotton cultivation from July 2013. The pesticides concerned were highlighted as a risk to bees in a recent scientific survey by the European Food Safety Authority, EFSA. All three pesticides are used widely in Ireland and environmental campaigners believe the pesticides should be banned before bee numbers fall further. Bumblebee and honeybee numbers have declined recently in both Ireland and Europe, prompting fears for food security, as the insects pollinate both fruit and vegetables. Some countries are opposed to this ban and are preparing their own scientific studies to challenge recent European Union research conducted by the European Food Safety Authority, which found the pesticides posed a risk to the declining bee populations. Naturally, Bayer is opposed to the ban and it was hardly surprising to hear the company state that disproportionate action would jeopardise the competitiveness of European agriculture, would lead finally to higher costs for food, feed, fibre and renewable raw materials and would have an enormous economic impact throughout the entire food chain.
However, in recent years there has already been a steep and disturbing global decline in bee populations. Some already have become extinct and some species in America are running at only 4% of their previous numbers. Italy has banned these pesticides and has already seen its bee population recover, which is a sure indication that Ireland should be doing the same. The Minister voted against the proposal but I believe he will have another opportunity to think again about the issue. I acknowledge those who will lobby the Minister to keep the chemicals on the market have more power than those who are trying to save the poor bees. I am sure the Irish Wildlife Trust has been in contact with the Minister and I note that Billy Flynn, who was one of the people who were very disappointed, has stated there is strong scientific evidence that these insecticides are not good news for key pollinators. He also has pointed out that Ireland has 101 different bee species, of which half are in decline, with six having been assessed as being critically endangered. Neonicotinoids are implicated in colony collapse disorder and in bees' ability to navigate. As I already have noted, the European Food Safety Authority has labelled them as posing an unacceptable danger to bees. Likewise, campaigner Pádraic Fogarty has asked what particular groups lobbied the Minister and has asked who managed to sway the Minister in the direction of standing by the chemical firms at the expense of the poor bees. The Minister probably will recall that a few years ago, Einstein said that were the bees to ever disappear from the planet, we would probably only last approximately six years.
Following that profound statement, may I first agree with the Deputy on a couple of points, mainly on the importance of bees and the maintenance of bee populations? However, it is important to have some accuracy in this regard. The neonicotinoid pesticides that it is proposed by the Commission to be banned or restricted in their use are not widely used in Ireland and only 0.7% of insecticides used in Ireland are neonicotinoids. One should be clear in this regard. In addition, there is no evidence of a collapse of bee populations in Ireland, although bee populations are under pressure in some areas in Ireland. However, there is no suggestion that Ireland is experiencing the kind of collapse in numbers that has occurred in other countries in Europe. It is important to be accurate in this regard.
Neonicotinoid insecticides were discovered in the 1980s but not commercialised until the 1990s. They are synthetic chemicals related to the naturally-occurring nicotine. There are five different active substances within the neonicotinoid family and three of the five are subject of the Commission's proposed restriction of use. The Commission proposed an implementing regulation to amend the conditions of approval of these three substances and prohibit the use and sale of seeds treated with plant protection products containing those active substances. An attempt has been made by certain parties to attribute the phenomenon of colony collapse disorder in bees to the use of pesticides and more particularly the use of neonicotinoid insecticides. Anecdotal evidence suggested a link between the increased use of neonicotinoids and the rise in the frequency of colony collapse disorder and sub-lethal effects. The Commission proposal was discussed at the European Union's standing committee on the food chain and animal health on 14 and 15 March 2013 and the resulting vote was inconclusive, with 14 member states refusing to support the measures proposed by the Commission, including Germany and the United Kingdom. Accordingly, the matter will now be tabled at an appeals committee meeting in late April.
I opposed the proposal on the basis that, procedurally, the European Commission proposal should be based on the EFSA conclusions and the current proposal seeks to go far beyond that. The procedure to date has been for the Commission to approve or not approve an active substance, in consultation with the member states. Thereafter, each member state approves or does not approve products containing these approved substances and specifies risk mitigation measures, where appropriate. In this instance, the proposal is taking the decision making process away from member states and thus ignores the principle of subsidiarity, whereby approval of an individual product at member state level has heretofore been a matter of member state competence. I am concerned that a precedent is being set here. I also had some technical concerns with the proposal, including the proposed prohibition for use on some crops that are not attractive to bees and the proposed prohibition for use on crops based on the time of year in which they would be sown. For example, the proposal continued to approve use on winter cereals, while prohibiting its use on spring cereals. I also believe there has been insufficient consultation with experts who understand the precise context of actual use of these substances.
I have not been lobbied by anybody on this. I have received some e-mails but I have not been lobbied heavily. If I have been lobbied, it has been far more on behalf of bees than on behalf of any industry interests. My only interest here is in making a decision that is based on science and fact.
The UK is now finalising a very substantial field study on the use of neonicotinoids, which does not draw the same conclusions as the Commission has drawn. We must listen to that. I have no problem voting for restrictive use or a ban, if necessary, of certain substances if there is a direct scientific link which shows that the use of those substances is causing significant damage to bee populations. However, we must be sure that we make decisions based on science. Yes, we need a precautionary principle but there are conflicting views and science on this, which I believe are not driven by the industry but by Ministers and their teams in the Council of Ministers who want to make decisions based on science, trials and fact. In time, we will be able to make decisions on the basis of fact, but there is probably more consultation required before we do that.
The Minister says these are used very little in Ireland. If they are so little used that is probably all the more reason that we should not use them at all. Perhaps Irish farmers can survive without them. The British have carried out a great deal of research into it, but I note they did not vote against a ban. They have abstained, as have the Germans. However, the Germans have their own ban. Given that Bayer is from Germany and is a huge company in that country, it is interesting that Germany has a ban in place. It is happy for Bayer to make money on its exports, which is a very German thing anyway. It is happy to protect its bees through its internal ban.
With regard to the bees and how much they are under threat in Ireland, traditionally a great deal of honey is produced in Wexford. Some bee producers have mentioned to me that they are concerned. The Minister might say they are reading too much international news, but they say there could be a problem coming down the tracks. They are worried about their bee stocks. Very often in these cases the strong chemical firm has a great deal of power. The Minister is querying the wisdom of the Commission, but one could express surprise that the Commission has been so strong against the chemical industry in this case as it is a very powerful lobby. If we do not have the courage, it will be too late to find out five or six years hence that further damage has been done. The Minister says he is relying on science, but there is science and arguments on both sides. Given the importance of bees' activity and what it means to the planet, we should err on the side of caution and in their favour, if possible.
I agree with the last statement. If I am convinced that, in all likelihood, the use of a certain product has the potential to do significant damage to the bee population in Ireland, we will act on it. I wish to be clear about that. This is a small but important industry in Ireland, and bee populations are also hugely important for non-honey production reasons in terms of pollination and so forth. Other countries have concerns in this regard. Hungary, for example, has the largest honey industry in the European Union and it also voted against it. A total of 14 countries either voted against it or abstained. I understand that the UK might well vote against it on the next occasion, but we must wait and see. My job is to articulate the Irish position and why we have taken it. I have an open mind on this, and I am not being lobbied heavily by any industry representatives. My view is that we must look at the evidence and the different studies that have been carried out and try to make the right judgment call. Also, we must ensure we follow procedure. There are some decisions that are appropriate to be taken within member states under the principle of subsidiarity and other decisions are appropriate for the Commission to take as a collective
In the context of those two issues as I have outlined them, I will take the most responsible approach I can to protect bee populations, but I will do it on the basis of science.
Will the Minister take on board the fact that the countries that voted against the ban are all small countries and have less power? Many of the big countries in Europe have not voted against the ban. Also, pollination in Ireland is worth over €50 million, according to Government sources.
That is not true. I must correct the record.
The Deputy has used his time. The debate is concluded.
For the record, it is not a question of big and small countries. There are big and small countries on both sides. It is a split between 13 on one side and 14 on the other. There have been two debates on neonicotinoids in the Council of Ministers with the Commissioner. I chaired the debates. There is division in terms of the opinion and the state of scientific evidence on this issue. We have to resolve that so we can come to a conclusion. There is a great deal of scientific research taking place on this issue. More field trials are taking place in a number of countries, including in the UK, and when we see the results of those we can make more informed decisions.