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Syngenta defends pesticides in wake of widening EU ban

European Union prepares for permanent neonicotinoid ban.

by Agnieszka de Sousa

Syngenta AG defended pesticides that several studies show are linked to bee deaths, saying the widening of a ban in Europe would lead to farmers using worse alternatives and crop yields shrinking. 

The company, bought by China National Chemical Corp. for $43 billion this year, said after the latest study into the neonicotinoid compounds that they’re just one issue affecting the insects. While that view by Syngenta is backed up by the scientific report released last month, its lead author said industry reluctance to admit problems was becoming untenable.

"There are numerous things impacting bee health," Syngenta Chief Executive Officer Erik Fyrwald said in an interview in Brussels. "One of the very minor elements there is pesticides. So it’s amazing to us that the discussion is, as a whole, about pesticides. Not only pesticides, just specifically neonics."

After years of declines in bee colonies and several studies indicating harm from neonicotinoids, the European Union’s executive arm is preparing proposals for a permanent ban. The dilemma for policymakers, pesticide businesses, scientists and farmers is how to prevent further damage to bees, essential for pollinating more than 80% of the region’s crops and wild plants, while maintaining food supply reliant on such compounds.

Smaller Harvests

For Syngenta’s Fyrwald, a further ban on neonicotinoids would force farmers to use less effective alternatives, meaning production falls even as more chemicals are sprayed on the land. He pointed to declining oilseed rape harvests since the EU’s temporary ban came into effect in December 2013 as farms struggle to control the spread of flea beetles, adding that rape flowers are a food source for pollinators like bees.

The EU’s rapeseed crop rose in the 2014-15 season when plantings took place before the ban, then dropped 19% during the two seasons through 2016-17, according to data compiled by the trading bloc.

"Some of those insecticides, we don’t think are as effective and therefore they’re having to use more and getting lower yields," Fyrwald said. "It’s really critical for the European farmers to not have important tools taken away from them without a clear scientific basis."

Syngenta and Bayer AG clashed with the EU in court this year over the ban. Yet that hasn’t discouraged the European Commission from drafting proposals that would all but outlaw the pesticides outside greenhouses. While the executive hasn’t yet formally put forward the plans, it sent the draft regulations to the European Parliament in March.

Separately, the European Food Safety Authority is assessing data and studies for a full reevaluation of neonicotinoids that’s due in November, a spokesman for the agency said.

The debate has gained a higher profile in the past two weeks with the release of a study published in peer-reviewed journal Science that showed neonicotinoids harmed bees in Hungary and the U.K. However, the research found no damage for overwintering bees in Germany, the third country involved. 

Syngenta also highlighted references in the report to the usefulness of neonicotinoids in farming and the importance of a broad range of factors, including the wider quality of the environment, such as wild flower diversity, for maintaining bees’ health. 

Ben Woodcock, lead author of the study at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, agreed that pesticides are necessary to feed growing populations and the chemicals at issue aren’t the sole cause of declines in bees in Europe. Authorities also need to consider what farmers will use instead if a ban is imposed, he said.

"But that doesn’t mean that pesticides should be used basically freely," he said in an interview. "The industry’s continued stance that neonicotinoids are not a problem, given the weight of evidence that is currently existing, I think it’s becoming untenable."

At Syngenta, Fyrwald insisted that more studies were needed and called for cooperation between companies, regulators, academics, beekeepers and non-governmental groups on how to develop sustainable agriculture. He fears the issue has been politicized. 

The company, which sets aside $1.3 billion a year for research, will increase spending on studies into seeds and crop protection after the takeover by ChemChina, Fyrwald said.

"This political, looking at one-product-at-a-time, thing is dangerous for EU farming but also dangerous for the world of sustainability," he said. "We’re proposing that more studies be done. We’re not saying all the facts are there. Let’s do more studies."

--With assistance from Nikos Chrysoloras.

To contact the reporter on this story: Agnieszka de Sousa in London at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lynn Thomasson at [email protected]

Tony Barrett, Liezel Hill

© 2017 Bloomberg L.P

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