Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticidal substances. The use of neonicotinoid products in agriculture has raised concerns in many countries, primarily because of their effects on pollinating insects. New scientific evidence has led the European Union to progressively restrict the uses of these substances. There are currently two active substances in the neonicotinoid class approved for plant protection purposes at European level. In France, the use of neonicotinoid products has been prohibited in agriculture since 2018. ANSES has conducted extensive work to assess the effects of these substances on bees and has been particularly active in strengthening the requirements for marketing authorisations.
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Updated on 11/06/2021
Before a product can be marketed, the active substance(s) it contains must have been approved at European level. A substance is approved for an average period of 10 years, and is re-assessed according to developments in scientific knowledge and regulations. The products must then obtain authorisation before they can be placed on the market in each Member State. Each product is subject to a scientific assessment according to the criteria set by the European regulations.
What are neonicotinoids?
Neonicotinoids are insecticidal substances mainly used in agricultural products. They are "systemic", meaning that they spread throughout the plant to protect it from pests. They can be applied as granules, seed treatments or by spraying. In agriculture, five substances are listed in the neonicotinoid class: clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, acetamiprid and thiacloprid. Their effects on the environment and, in particular, on beneficial insects are now known, which has led the European Union to significantly restrict their use.
Did you know?
Neonicotinoids are also used in veterinary medicinal products such as flea treatments for pets, as well as in biocidal products such as treatments for livestock buildings or bait for domestic pest control.
Key dates for neonicotinoids
- 2013: Based on the conclusions of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), a European Commission moratorium imposed restrictions on the use of three neonicotinoids considered harmful to bees in crops popular with these insects: clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam >> Ban on seed, soil and foliar treatments for crops attractive to bees, except for crops in greenhouses, winter cereals and crops after flowering.
- 2016: In France, the Act for the restoration of biodiversity, nature and landscapes provided for a ban on neonicotinoid products as of 1 September 2018. Waivers could be granted until 1 July 2020 on the basis of an assessment prepared by ANSES comparing the benefits and risks from using these products with those of substitute products or alternative methods.
- 2018: ANSES published its first report on chemical and non-chemical alternatives to neonicotinoids.
- The European Commission prohibited the use of the three substances clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam at European level, except in greenhouses.
- 2019: Following its re-assessment, the substance thiacloprid was banned in the European Union.
Applications for the renewal of approval of clothianidin and thiamethoxam were withdrawn.
Two substances are currently authorised at European level: imidacloprid for greenhouse use only and acetamiprid.
Did you know?
France also issued a decree prohibiting the use of two other substances with an identical mode of action to those in the neonicotinoid class: sulfoxaflor and flupyradifurone.
Assessment of the impact of neonicotinoids on the health of bees and humans
For many years now, ANSES has been studying the role of co-exposure to pesticides and infectious agents in the phenomenon of bee mortality.
Because it is responsible for assessing marketing authorisation applications, the Agency has been particularly active in initiating a re-assessment of neonicotinoid substances at European level. It has issued a number of recommendations for adapting European regulations to take better account of the impact of these substances on bee behaviour.
In an opinion of 2016, the Agency recommended imposing stricter conditions of use for products containing the active substances clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid for all uses for which there is still considerable uncertainty.
In 2016, ANSES also carried out an in-depth assessment of the effects on human health of six neonicotinoid substances authorised in plant protection products, biocides and veterinary medicinal products (acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiacloprid, thiamethoxam and dinotefuran). Its work found no harmful effects on human health, subject to compliance with the conditions of use laid down in the marketing authorisations.
Assessment of alternatives to neonicotinoids
Between 2016 and 2018, ANSES carried out an assessment of chemical and non-chemical alternatives to neonicotinoid products. Its expert appraisal was in three parts:
1/ Development of a methodology for identifying these alternatives and comparing their effectiveness and operational capability with that of neonicotinoids. This methodology was applied to all neonicotinoid uses.
In six cases, no chemical or non-chemical alternatives meeting the set criteria regarding effectiveness and operational capability were identified.
In 89% of cases, the solutions to replace neonicotinoids were based on the use of other active substances, especially pyrethrinoids.
In 39% of cases, the chemical alternatives relied on the same class of active substances, a single active substance or a single marketed product.
And in 78% of the analysed cases, there was at least one non-chemical alternative solution.
2/ Definition of risk indicators for humans and the environment, including pollinators, regarding chemical alternatives. >> ANSES concluded that it was not possible to identify the active substances with the least unfavourable risk profiles compared to that of neonicotinoids.
3/ Assessment of the impact of the ban on neonicotinoid use and the implementation of alternatives on agricultural activity. >> This impact is difficult to anticipate, mainly due to the wide variety of neonicotinoid uses and the fact that the extensive use of these substances to treat seeds is partly an “insurance” measure. Even so, the Agency proposed an indicative list of criteria for assessing the impact on sector activity.
ANSES reiterated that with regard to pest control, no single method is sufficiently effective: a combination of chemical and non-chemical methods should therefore be considered as part of an integrated control approach. In addition, it recommended speeding up the provision of effective alternative methods for crop protection and management that are safer for humans and the environment.
Risk mitigation measures for any exemptions concerning the use of neonicotinoid products
The French Act of 14 December 2020 provides for the granting of exemptions for the use of neonicotinoid substances for seeds in the event of threats to sugar beet crops. These exemptions are required to include measures to mitigate the risk of release into the environment and adverse effects on non-target organisms, in particular pollinating insects and birds. ANSES received a formal request to clarify these measures. For its opinion, ANSES drew largely on the conclusions of the risk assessments for the substances and on surveillance data. The recommended mitigation measures apply not only to crops grown from treated seed but also to succeeding crops.
Identification of alternatives to neonicotinoid treatments for beet crops
In order to provide beet producers and the beet industry with effective, operational measures for controlling beet aphids and yellowing viruses, ANSES received a formal request in June 2020 to identify alternatives to neonicotinoid products that could be used in this sector. The results of this expert appraisal were published in an opinion in May 2021. Four solutions available in the short term were identified, as were 18 control measures that may replace neonicotinoids in the medium term, within the next two or three years.