Last updated: September 2014
Fighting back against the neonicotinoid lobby
Syngenta and Bayer are two of the largest pesticide manufacturing companies in the world. In their lobbying against bans on their bee-unfriendly neonicotinoids, they appear to have gone to war against bees, science and democracy. Ethical Consumer explores the issues and asks what consumers can do to help.
In January 2014, both companies were nominated alongside chemicals giant BASF for the Public Eye People’s Award of Shame for ‘toxic pesticides killing bees essential for environment, agriculture and global food production’. They received 20% of the 280,000-strong vote and ultimately came in second, behind Gazprom.
The pesticides in question are neonicotinoids, a type of insecticide used in the last 20 years to control a range of ‘pests’, such as sap-feeding insects and root-feeding grubs, by blocking neural pathways in the insects’ nervous system.[2,3]
Neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides, meaning that they are taken up by the plant and transmitted internally to all parts of the plant, including pollen and nectar, and they remain active for weeks, enabling season-long protection.
Evidence has been mounting for years that neonicotinoids are responsible for alarming declines in bee populations due to their effects on bees’ communication, homing and foraging abilities, as well as their flight activity; their ability to learn and discriminate by smell; and their immune systems.[3,4]
Among a long list of products sold by Syngenta and Bayer are three widelyused neonicotinoid insecticides – thiamethoxam, clothianidin and imidacloprid – some uses of which are currently restricted in the EU due to suspected links with declining bee populations. The months preceding the ban on these insecticides were busy ones for Syngenta, which employed a range of tactics in an attempt to stop the ban from being implemented.
They began gently, blaming farmers for using their products inappropriately and then branding proponents of a ban as ‘a small group of activists and hobby beekeepers’.
Syngenta’s CEO then moved on to name-dropping the world leaders he had lunched with at the G8, alluding to discussions about global food security and Syngenta’s investments in Africa.
When these attempts failed, Syngenta switched to attacking the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) study which provided grounds for the ban. They suggested that the process had been rushed and may lead to ‘wrong conclusions’.
They also pointed to ‘independent research’ predicting dire financial and cropyield losses to European agriculture if neonicotinoids were to be banned.
Syngenta made a last-ditch attempt to change the EFSA study on the eve of its publication, responding angrily to an advanced copy of the press release which they claimed was ‘incorrect in a major and highly relevant aspect’ and demanding changes, setting a deadline for those changes and threatening recourse to legal action if their demands were not met.
When the press release went out without any of their requested changes, the company went into full attack mode, demanding all documents relating to the report, as well as the names of individuals involved, and suggested they would begin legal proceedings against these individuals and against EFSA’s Director.[5,6]
The proposed ban was put to a vote of EU member states on 15 March 2013 at which it failed to secure a clear majority either in favour or against. The proposal then went to the European Commission Appeal Committee at the end of April 2013, which decided to press ahead.
Rooting for the big guy
One person who was on the side of big agribusiness through all of this was the then UK Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson. He had been corresponding with Syngenta following the first vote of EU
member states. In one of his letters he said that the UK government was ‘extremely disappointed’ in the decision to proceed with the proposed ban, reassuring the company that he had been ‘very active in calling for a better approach’ and that his efforts would ‘continue and intensify in the coming days’ before the appeals committee meeting.
Down but not out
Once the decision had been made to ban the three neonicotinoids for two years, Syngenta and Bayer opted to sue the European Commission over the decision. The case is still ongoing.9
On 25 June 2014 Syngenta resurfaced with an application to the UK government for an emergency exemption from the EU ban to use thiamethoxam on rape sown by mid-August and crops in areas under pressure from flea beetles.10 Syngenta’s argument was that alternative methods of protecting crops would not be effective in these circumstances and there would be a danger to production if the banned insecticide was not used. However, Nick Mole of Pesticide Action Network UK described the application as ‘a clear attempt by Syngenta and the NFU [National Farmers Union] to undermine the EU ban, which they so bitterly opposed, by the back door’.
Once again the company sought to set its own terms, requesting a response to its application by the end of the month. Syngenta withdrew the application the following week, ostensibly because the Government failed to meet their deadline.
As well as challenging regulation, Syngenta and Bayer also keep a keen eye on scientific developments.
In July 2014 Nature published a letter about a study by Dutch researchers into the effects of imidacloprid (a Bayerproduced neonicotinoid) on insectivorous birds. Their findings suggested that declining populations of insectivorous birds were more pronounced in areas with higher surface-water concentrations of imidacloprid and that these patterns had only emerged since the mid-1990s, when imidacloprid was introduced in the Netherlands.
Bayer came out fighting. In their response to the Nature letter, they said that it failed to demonstrate a causal link between neonicotinoids and bird populations and made ‘no proper attempt to account for other possible sources of the reported decline such as climate change or nutrition’.
They also lambasted the authors for referencing critical research into neonicotinoids that had recently been rebutted by ‘peer scientists’. Bayer do not say who these ‘peer scientists’ were and we ought to pause before assuming their independence, since both Bayer and Syngenta are financially involved with several ‘independent’ research bodies (Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture and the European Crop Protection Association, to name just two).
They also maintain research relationships with universities and Bayer even has its own educational initiative: Biotech Partners.
The next round
The EU ban expires on 30 November 2015 and before then the European Commission said it would review ‘theconditions of approval of the three neonicotinoids to take into account relevant scientific and technical developments.’ In the meantime, Syngenta and Bayer continue to pursue their legal challenge of the European commission’s ban.[8,9]
NGOs that are fighting Syngenta and Bayer in court and at the companies’ AGMs include Buglife, ClientEarth, Sumofus.org, Greenpeace, Pesticide Action Network Europe and Beelife European Beekeeping Coordination.
In the 150 years since it was first established in 1863 to manufacture and sell synthetic dyestuffs, Bayer has grown into a pharmaceutical, materials and agrochemical giant. In 2013 Bayer Cropscience, the Group’s ‘crop protection’ and pest control section, generated £7bn in sales, 22% of the Group’s combined sales of £32bn.
Syngenta is a much younger company, formed by a merger of the agribusiness arms of Novartis and AstraZeneca in 2000. Like Bayer, Syngenta specialises in chemical ‘crop protection’ in the form of fungicides, herbicides and insecticides, as well as producing seeds, seed care products and domestic garden products. Its sales in 2013 came to £9.1bn.
The aggressive lobbying employed by Bayer and Syngenta are inappropriate interventions in the democratic process. Citizens wanting to encourage then to review this approach could consider avoiding some of their consumer-facing brands and writing to them to let them know why.
Sadly Syngenta, probably the more aggressive of the two, does not really have high profile consumer brands to avoid.
Bayer however is different, with the following over-the-counter medicine brands clearly vulnerable:
Rennie – indigestion tablets
Sanatogen – multivitamins
ProPlus – caffeine tablets
Alka-Seltzer – antacid
Canestan – thrush treatment
Germolene – antiseptic
Redoxon – vitamin C tablets
If you want to avoid these brands in support of bees, do let Bayer know why. You can email them at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tricia McKernan is the media contact for Consumer Care at Bayer.