The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) on Oct. 8 upheld a 2018 French ban on neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides used in agricultural production that are notorious for causing mass bee deaths.

The ruling is the latest development in a heated legal row between France and a French agricultural interest group (UIPP). In 2018, the UIPP filed a complaint before the country’s Council of State, the highest court for issues and cases involving public administration.

The group argued that the ban of five particular neonicotinoids – acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam – deviates from a prevailing regulation that requires member states of the European Union (EU) to harmonize their authorization of plant protection products.

French ban does not violate prevailing EU regulations

In 2013, the European Commission severely restricted the use of plant protection products containing three neonicotinoids – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam – to protect bee populations. But in 2018, the French government went on to outlaw the use of acetamiprid and thiacloprid as well, both outdoors and in greenhouses.

This legislation garnered much backlash from critics and farmers alike. The UIPP, for instance, said that the ban prevented sugar beet farmers from protecting their crops, which are susceptible to infestations of green aphids.

On the other hand, sugar beet farmers argued that pesticides with neonicotinoids were the most effective at protecting their crops from these destructive pests.

The UIPP also argued that the French government failed to inform the EU that it planned to deviate from the 2013 regulation. Following the UIPP’s formal complaint, France’s Council of State deferred to the Luxembourg-based CJEU to interpret the matter.

France is Europe’s top producer of sugar beets, and the sugar beet sector alone provides 46,000 jobs. Should the ban prevail and farmers lose their main protection against aphids, it could have devastating and far-reaching agricultural and economic consequences throughout France.

Regardless, the CJEU still ruled in France’s favor, concluding that a member state reserves the right to ban pesticides, even those authorized in the EU, provided that the state informs the European Commission.

The CJEU also wrote in the ruling that France had proven the need to stop a “serious risk to human or animal health or to the environment.” That said, the CJEU does not decide the dispute itself. It is now up to France’s Council of State to decide on the matter, which will take place in the following months.

Nevertheless, the ruling garnered positive reactions from campaign groups. “Member states often publicly hide behind the European Commission and claim only the EU level can ban a pesticide,” said Martin Dermine, health and environment policy officer at Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN Europe).

PAN Europe is a non-profit organization that aims to support safe and sustainable pest control methods, and eliminate the dependence on chemical pesticides in agricultural production.

This ruling also confirms that governments can be more protective of their citizens and their environment, added Dermine.

The UIPP has refrained from commenting on the recent court ruling.

France considers scaling pesticide ban

With the latest case now up to the French court for a final decision, France could be backtracking. On Oct. 6, French lawmakers approved a draft bill allowing sugar beet farmers to use pesticides containing some of the banned neonicotinoids to help the sector.

The bill is still pending the Senate’s review and was approved before the CJEU ruling. However, several groups for and against the bill have already expressed strong reactions on the matter.

On the one hand, the Union of Sugar Beet Growers (CGB) welcomed the bill’s approval, commending the French government’s “courage and ambition” to sustain the sugar beet sector. (Related: Brain-damaging neurotoxic pesticide found in hundreds of foods: EPA allows pesticide lobby to dictate policy.)

For the National Union of French Beekeeping (UNAF), on the other hand, the approval of the bill was “an insult to apiculture, science and the protection of living things.”

But while the bill’s approval appeared to prioritize economic considerations over the potential threat to bee populations, it had not been a simple decision for French lawmakers.

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