A slow race is coming to an end. Nearly 30 years after the first reports of honeybee colony collapse, following the arrival of neonicotinoids in the fields, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has just adopted a new guidance document designed to improve the risk assessment of agricultural pesticides on honeybees, solitary bees and bumblebees. Officially presented on Thursday, May 11, by the European agency, the document sets out the new principles manufacturers must conform to in order to test the safety of their products before they are authorized for marketing. However, it still remains to be adopted by the European Union member states according to a schedule that is yet to be fixed.
It is far from a done deal. The first draft of the guidance document was presented by the EFSA in 2013, but, deemed too restrictive, it was never endorsed. It has been examined more than 30 times without ever winning a vote of support from the EU member states. In 2019, noting the stalemate, the European Commission directed the EFSA to review it from top to bottom and to produce new guidelines. After four more years of work, the revision is now complete.
The shortcomings of existing regulatory practices have long been known. In 2003, 10 years after the first warnings from French beekeepers, the Scientific and Technical Committee for the Multifactorial Study of Bee Disorders (CST), a group of scientists commissioned by the French Ministry of Agriculture, reached the same conclusions. Their findings never led to a change in the required “bee tests” Nearly 10 years later, the European Commission instructed the EFSA to evaluate these tests. In 2012, the EFSA produced a 250-page report that was particularly critical.
Underestimated exposure calculations
The EFSA experts noted that prolonged and intermittent exposure of bees to pesticides was not evaluated in the laboratory, nor was the exposure of larvae. In addition, they explained in their assessment that exposure calculations systematically underestimated the realities in the field. So-called “sublethal” effects (which degrade the survival capacity of individuals and ultimately erode populations) were not fully taken into account. Field trials were also biased, with the size of test fields leading to an underestimation of insects’ real exposure by a factor of up to 10,000.
“The document covers various scenarios and aspects relevant for the risk assessment,” said Domenica Auteri (EFSA), chair of the working group assembled by the agency. “These include the different timescales of effects (acute and chronic) and the different life stages of bees (adults and larvae).” In an agency statementthe ecotoxicologist added that the guidance document “considers possible long-term effects of low doses and potential concerns due to sublethal effects.”
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