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, leaving only two approved for plant protection purposes. 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 using these products.
Before a plant protection 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 then re-assessed in light of 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 criteria laid down by European legislation.
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 have led the European Union to withdraw the approval granted to certain substances.
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 on 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, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid were not supported. Currently, only acetamiprid is authorised at European level.
- 2021: Ministerial Order provisionally authorising the use of sugar beet seeds treated with neonicotinoid plant protection products.
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 bee mortality. It is also tasked with assessing marketing authorisation (MA) applications, and has issued a number of recommendations in its opinions on 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 was still considerable uncertainty.
Between 2016 and 2017, ANSES also carried out an in-depth expert appraisal 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 assessed 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, mainly pyrethroids.
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.
Identification of alternatives to neonicotinoid treatments for beet crops
Identification of alternative treatments to neonicotinoids for beet crops
In June 2020, following an outbreak of aphid-transmitted viruses causing beet yellows, ANSES was asked to identify alternatives to neonicotinoid products that could be used in the beet sector. The results of its expert appraisal were published in an opinion in May 2021 (PDF). Four solutions available in the short term were identified, along with 18 control measures that could replace neonicotinoids in the medium term, within the next two or three years. The solutions able to be applied immediately were two conventional plant protection products with insecticidal properties, mulching and organic fertilisation, in order to control nitrogen inputs.
Measures to limit the risks to pollinators following the exemption for use
By the Ministerial Order of 5 February 2021, the Government granted beet growers a time-limited exemption for the use of coated seeds treated with neonicotinoids (imidacloprid or thiamethoxam), due to aphid infestation of beet crops in Europe.
ANSES was asked by the Government to decide on measures that could limit the exposure of bees and other pollinators to these neonicotinoids. These measures were designed to mitigate the risks of using neonicotinoids in the year the treated beet seed was sown, but also for subsequent crops. It issued several opinions:
- the December 2020 opinion (PDF) deals with crop rotation following beets. The list of crops that can be sown, planted or replanted in the years following the sowing of beets treated with neonicotinoids was drawn up on the basis of this opinion. It is set out in an annex to the exemption order;
- the ANSES opinion of October 2021 (PDF) was designed to assess the level of protection of the mitigation or compensation measures provided for in the exemption to allow the early return of maize and oilseed rape crops, while limiting the risks of exposure for bees and other pollinators. These measures include leaving field borders that are not sown with neonicotinoid-treated beets, and sowing strips of untreated nectar-producing crops on the edges of treated crops or following the beet crops. This opinion also contains an additional list of crops that can be added to the list of crops in the December 2020 opinion;
- the December 2021 opinion (PDF) examined the possibility of an early return to the rotation of some of the crops listed in Annex 2 of the exemption – potatoes, flax (fibre and oilseed), peas (protein and canning) and nectar-producing vegetables – in light of the available data on the presence of neonicotinoid residues in these crops and how much they are visited by pollinators.