Far-reaching restrictions on three neonicotinoid insecticides in the European Union have been upheld by the EU’s general court, prompting criticism from neonic manufacturers Syngenta and Bayer, and praise from environmental groups.

The General Court of the European Union’s May 17 opinions gave legal backing to a 2013 measure preventing the use of thiamethoxam, clothianidin and imidacloprid – as seed or soil treatments – on most major crops in order to protect honey bees.

The ruling can be seen as a preview of any legal challenges to the decision by the European Commission, the EU’s governing arm, last month to impose a comprehensive ban on neonics, allowing their use only in greenhouses.

Syngenta, which makes thiamethoxam, called the ruling “disappointing and unfortunate” and said the way the case was handled “reflects our more general concern at the approach the European Commission is taking to regulating technology in agriculture.”

“Predictable, transparent and science-based regulation must lie at the center of meeting (the) challenge” to feed the world’s growing population, predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050, the company said. However, “Scientific and regulatory excellence in Europe has increasingly become politicized. This has negatively affected all interested parties and above all, has damaged consumer trust.”

Bayer, which makes clothianidin and imidacloprid, also said it was disappointed in the verdict and said it would be looking closely at the decision. “Bayer remains convinced of the safety of its products when applied in accordance with the label instructions,” it said. The companies have 60 days from the date of the ruling to appeal to the European Court of Justice, Europe’s highest court.

The European Crop Protection Association also weighed in, with Public Affairs Director Graeme Taylor saying, “There may be a cognitive ease to blaming pesticides for affecting bee health, but experts, including the Commission itself, have acknowledged that it can be influenced by multiple and complex factors. We will continue our efforts as an industry to strengthen biodiversity and ensure honey bees and other pollinators can continue to play a vital role in agriculture.”

Greenpeace, however, applauded the verdict, in particular the court’s reliance on the precautionary principle, which gives precedence to public health and environmental concerns over economic interests.

“The ruling sets the EU’s priorities straight – its primary duty is to protect people and nature, not company profit margins,” Greenpeace EU food policy adviser Franziska Achterberg said in a news release. “It’s an indictment against corporate bullying that should spur the Commission to act on other dangerous pesticides without fear of being challenged in court.”

Significantly, the court said scientific risk assessments are “not required to provide the institutions with conclusive scientific evidence of the reality of the risk and the seriousness of the potential adverse effects, were that risk to become a reality.”

“Where there is scientific uncertainty as to the existence or extent of risks to human health or to the environment, the precautionary principle allows the institutions to take protective measures without having to wait until the reality and seriousness of those risks become fully apparent or until the adverse health effects materialize,” the court said.

In a separate decision, the court said that the EC’s restriction on BASF’s fipronil insecticide – a member of the phenylpyrazole chemical family – were not justified because the commission had not performed an impact assessment.

That decision won't have any impact on growers, however, because BASF decided not to pursue renewal of its registration as a seed treatment. The company said it was "pleased that the Court acknowledged that the Commission has to make sound assessments of the impact of use restrictions prior to banning products," but that it "decided not to submit a re-registration due to the high costs of the registration process."

"Fipronil was only registered for seed treatment in a few specialty crops in Europe," BASF said. The EU's approval of fipronil as a seed treatment ended Sept. 30. It can still be used as a biocide to control ants, cockroaches and termites.

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