Alarm Sounds on Bee-Killing Pesticides
By Julio Godoy*
France has authorized use until May 31 of inventories of chemicals suspected of killing off bee populations. There is great concern in other European countries about this insect essential for agriculture.
PARIS - "Gaucho", a broad-spectrum insecticide made by the Germany-based chemical giant Bayer, was banned in France in 1999 due to its toxicity to bees and other forms of life -- including humans -- but its replacement, "Regent", from another German giant, BASF, is just as dangerous say beekeepers and biologists.
The Bayer product was used mostly for sunflower and corn fields and was applied directly to the seeds, such that it was absorbed throughout the entire plant, from the roots to the leaves and grains.
After months of study and of legal battles, the French Ministry of Agriculture determined in 1999 that imidacloprid, the main chemical component of Gaucho, was highly toxic, and that brief contact with treated plants was mortal to bees and other non-pest insects.
According to the National Union of French Apiculturists, Gaucho killed off hundreds of thousands of bees, an insect that serves the vital environmental function of pollination. Their disappearance also pushed thousands of small honey producers out of business.
The Bayer insecticide was replaced by the BASF product, but beekeepers in southwest France saw as much as 40 percent of their bees die nevertheless.
In mid-February, a judge from that region decided to open an investigation against BASF and Bayer for "sales of highly toxic chemical products for agricultural use."
In addition to Regent, five other insecticides based on "fipronil" stand "accused" of killing bees.
The case forced Agriculture Minister Hervé Gaymard to take action. On Feb. 23 he banned Regent, but is allowing sunflower and corn farmers to use their stocks of insecticides until May 31.
Jean-Marc Bonmatin, bee expert from the French Center for Social and Scientific Research, told Tierramérica that he had found fipronil in sunflower pollen -- 0.1 micrograms per kilo.
In experiments, "we have fed bees with pollen that has been contaminated with similar levels of fipronil, and within a few days we found the type of poisoning denounced by the apiculturists," he said.
Biologist Gérard Arnold, of the same research center, told Tierramérica that fipronil and imidacloprid are also dangerous for humans, as the substances are "stored and concentrated in milk, in fat and in vegetables."
On Feb. 26, farmers who defend organic agricultural practices -- without the use of chemical inputs -- occupied the offices of the Ministry of Agriculture in protest against the decision to allow the pesticide stocks to be used. There, the farmers discovered documents that had been kept confidential, and which confirmed Regent's high toxicity.
The documents included medical reports from a health insurance company on 182 cases of people who were poisoned from contact with Regent and other insecticides. The reports documented cardiac and respiratory complications, skin and eye problems, and digestive tract dysfunction.
The protesting farmers also found a report from the ministry's legal department detailing alternatives available to the government on the insecticide question.
According to that text, the immediate halt to Regent use would have cost 360 million dollars, while permitting the use of pesticide stocks "would have comparatively lower financial consequences."
"The government based its decision exclusively on financial considerations, and not on public health," commented renowned activist José Bové, leader of the organic farming movement and among those involved in the ministry occupation.
BASF and Bayer say that fipronil is used in more than 70 countries without negative effects on human or non-pest insects. Bayer has even filed a defamation lawsuit against beekeeper Henri Clement for describing Gaucho as "a murderer of bees".
However, in the United States, the southeastern state of Florida advises against using fipronil near apiaries; lobster farmers in Louisiana, in the south, saw high lobster mortality rates from 1999 to 2002 when rice paddies in the region were treated with that chemical; and in New York state, in the northeast, fipronil is banned for use in sprays to eliminate parasites in pets.
In Europe, during a farming conference in April 2003, participants from Belgium, Switzerland and Spain called for a ban on insecticides based on fipronil or imidacloprid.
The director of the Belgian center for apiculture information, Etienne Bruneau, said, "At the current rate, in 10 years there will be no more bees in Belgium."
Next year, the European Union, in its "Directive on dangerous substances" is to draw up a list of toxic products to be banned. France is in charge of the report on fipronil, and has asked for the expertise of a commission that studied toxicity of phytosanitary products, which concluded on Jan. 29 that "fipronil should not be authorized, given the great concerns it causes in relation to the environment and wild species."
* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent.