/ 18 November 2021

EU ships banned bee-killing pesticides to South Africa and other countries

Argentina Agriculture Glyphosate

The European Union and the United Kingdom are exporting thousands of tons of banned neonicotinoid pesticides to low and middle income countries, including South Africa, which was one of the top 10 importers.

An investigation by Unearthed and Public Eye has shown how, between September and December last year, EU countries issued notices of plans to export more than 3 800 tonnes of these pesticides — thiamethoxam, imidacloprid or clothianidin — which were banned for outdoor use in the EU in 2018 because of the environmental damage they cause, particularly to key pollinators such as bees.

More than 90% of the exports by weight were to low or middle income countries. Sixty-five countries were notified of banned neonicotinoid shipments from the EU. 

The top destinations by weight of active ingredient are Brazil, Russia, Ukraine, Argentina, Iran, South Africa, Indonesia, Ghana and Mali. 

The eight EU countries that led the exports are Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Greece, Austria, Denmark and Hungary — as well as the UK. 

The investigation found that chemical giants Bayer and Syngenta were responsible for close to 90% of the EU exports. Syngenta was the first to put neonicotinoid thiamethoxam on the market in the 1990s, and Bayer was the first to commercialise neonicotinoids imidacloprid and clothianidin. Seven other companies also shipped banned neonicotinoid products out of the EU. 

The Rotterdam Convention forces all countries exporting pesticides banned on their own farms to notify the recipient. According to Greenpeace UK, banned neonicotinoid exports from the EU became subject to the Convention on 1 September last year. 

This allowed Unearthed and Public Eye to identify for the first time all notifications of banned neonicotinoid shipments out of the EU using freedom of information requests.  

“This practice of exporting pesticides too dangerous for use for EU farmers is akin to environmental racism,” said Rico Euripidou, of groundWork, “because it results in workers and communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic pesticides in the global South where regulations, oversight and conditions for use are not as rigorous as in the EU. Is it because EU lives are worth more than African lives?”

Concern over neonics in Africa

Neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics) — a class of chemicals derived from nicotine — are the most widely used insecticides in the world. They are designed to kill insects by attacking their central nervous system. 

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, neonics “represent a worldwide threat to biodiversity, ecosystems and ecosystem services”.

In 2019, a landmark report by the Network of African Science Academies (Nasac) and the Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf), said stricter regulation of insecticides is required across Africa. “It is urgent to act now to prevent further deterioration in the sustainability of African agriculture.”

The report, which identifies key messages for policymakers to make African agriculture more sustainable, brought together experts from 17 African countries and reviewed more than 200 studies from 28 African countries. 

Neonics render all parts of a plant toxic to all insects and contaminate soil and water bodies. “By exposing all organisms to the toxins, neonicotinoids also harm beneficial insects that provide many important ‘ecosystem services’, such as pollination, soil development, and natural pest control, which are an integral part of sustainable agriculture.”

Africa, with its rich biodiversity and heavy reliance on agricultural production, is one of the fastest-growing pesticide markets in the world, “so protecting it from the harmful effects of neonicotinoids is vital to ensuring sustainable agriculture that provides food security”.

Widespread environmental contamination in Africa

The report found there is already evidence of “widespread environmental contamination” from neonics in Africa, with residues found in honey from several countries and a limited number of studies confirming contamination in soils, water, snails and sediment near agricultural areas. 

Findings from participating countries revealed that honey bee populations are in decline, as shown in decreases in wild population, fewer migratory swarms, disappearance and loss of hives, some mass bee mortalities and reduced honey production. Declines include edible insects such as crickets and insectivorous birds.

Neil Rusch, a research associate with the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, said: “What’s happening is inevitable. Neonic use in Africa is increasing as restrictions and bans come into place in Europe. Bees and honey are an important reference but other pollinators are being impacted too.”

Referring to the report, he said: “The evidence indicates that all African countries are using neonics, which are replacing older insecticides. The available data are limited.  But what’s there shows widespread contamination of honey and pollen. In addition, neonic residues have been found in soils and water bodies. Market penetration currently appears to be less than in Europe, but market surveys flag Africa as the fastest growing market. Findings show that the concerns that led to restrictions on neonics usage in Europe also apply to Africa.”

Same concerns for Africa

The main concerns for Africa are the same as those that resulted in the ban on neonics in the EU, said Christian Pirk, a professor of chemical and behavioural ecology and head of the Social Insects Group at the University of Pretoria

South Africa is a biodiversity hotspot. “We have the same species of honeybee, which is the main pollinator in South Africa and contributes with it, ecosystem services to biodiversity and the agricultural sector.” 

Insects are a part of the diet of some of the populations in Southern Africa, “which means residue in non-target insects could have direct human implications”.

The unit’s research is focused on honeybees. “The results we have on neonics are in line with what was found in the EU. Bees exposed to sublethal levels show a lack of ability to thermoregulate. It affects how they taste the sugar in nectar … how far they can fly and how they survive under heat stress. 

“We did some more work into detoxification and it shows that larvae and adults actively have to detox the neonics, which could have energetic implications.”

SA situation 

Mike Allsopp, the head of the honeybee research section at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), said: “I don’t think that it is a big secret that large volumes of neonicotinoids are shipped from the manufacturers to places in the world where there usage has not been restricted — which is most of the world. These products are still widely and legally used, South Africa included.”

The situation in South Africa, and Africa, has been thoroughly reviewed. “As I understand it, the consensus was that a ban or restriction placed on these products was not considered to be appropriate at this time.”

For South Africa, Allsopp has long been concerned about the effect of the use of neonicotinoids and other pesticides on honeybees and other insects, both in the commercial pollination setting and the general environment. 

“In South Africa specifically and Africa in general, however, and in contrast to Europe, we have very vibrant and vigorous wild honey bee populations and it’s hard to make a case that neonicotinoids are ‘wiping out our bees’ because our bees seem to be fine.” 

He said almost all known local “bee poisoning” incidents over the past 20 years involved classes of pesticides other than neonicotinoids and involved pesticides being used illegally and contrary to label requirements. 

“We need better regulation, and better monitoring of pesticide application, but I’m unconvinced that a widespread ban on neonicotinoids in South Africa is warranted.”

The South African National Biodiversity Institute said: “There is scientific evidence that neonicotinoids have an unacceptable impact on non-target insects — especially pollinators,” adding that it doesn’t lead research in this area.

Double standards

Professor Leslie London, a pesticide expert at the University of Cape Town, said that on principle, the EU should not permit the export of chemicals, which it has restricted or banned in Europe. “That is a double standard that the United Nations system regards as unacceptable.” 

London said for that reason the UN adopted the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Convention (Rotterdam) to prevent dumping of unwanted and hazardous chemicals in low and medium income countries, which have limited regulatory capacity to control such hazards.

“The PIC Convention does its best to prevent this double standard but it is cumbersome in its processes — the time taken to get new chemicals into the annexes of the convention depends on how vigorously country parties to the convention oppose the inclusion of chemicals — it took many years, for example, for endosulfan to be included. How long will it take for these nicotinamides to be included is anyone’s guess — and will depend on how vigorously a country defends the agent.”

London said both Bayer and Syngenta “and probably a number of other companies exporting”, are signatories to the UN Global Compact, which commits signatories to a form of corporate sustainability that “starts with a company’s value system and a principles-based approach to doing business. This means operating in ways that, at a minimum, meet fundamental responsibilities in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption. 

“It seems to me that Bayer and Syngenta are patently in violation of the commitments they have professed to make to the UN since it is not responsible to export to other countries chemicals which your countries’ governments have deemed to dangerous to license in Europe; and there is certainly no precaution there — in fact, quite the opposite, in light of the established evidence of risk to environment and the ecotoxicity of these agents.”

There is “no doubt” that integrated pest management, which reduces pesticide use is “far better for human health, for the environment and for the future sustainability of our planet”. 

South Africa, he said, lacks a coherent national regulatory framework on pest and pesticide management. A pesticide management policy was finalised in 2010 by the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries “but 10 years later there has been absolutely no movement of amending the existing legislation which is so old that it even predates apartheid … The current system is failing so it is not surprising that South Africa is importing chemicals with substantial ecotoxicological harms.”

Mariam Mayet, the director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, said: “If it’s toxic, it’s toxic and must be banned … The neonics have to be urgently addressed and banned. But then the bigger issues are about the other chemicals, and then of course, our food systems in Africa. We cannot address issues relating to our food systems in such a piecemeal fashion.”

Glenn Ashton, a researcher working in civil society, said: “My big concern is seed coatings. We don’t know what seeds are being coated, or with what neonics because the industry controls these figures. However, we must presume that all major grain crops are being coated. There are significant risks to all insects, bees, birds etc,” he said, adding that US studies have shown that neonics yield little benefit “for the amount of damage they create”.

Bayer and Syngenta’s response

Allsopp said Syngenta is funding a long-term pesticide monitoring programme with the ARC called Bee Alert.  “Simply put, it asks if pesticides are really hurting bees in and around crop production settings, and if so, which pesticides, and in what manner. 

“The project is presently ongoing in four agricultural settings in the Western Cape, involving a wide range of crops, and may soon be extended to other areas of the country. At the end of the project, we should be much more able to make an informed decision about the impact of neonicotinoids — and other pesticides — in South Africa.”

A Syngenta spokesperson said: “Our products are safe and effective when used as intended. Wherever we operate, we do this in full compliance with local laws and regulations. What’s more, upholding international standards, we only sell products in developing countries when they have an OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] registration and/or a complete regulatory data package based on OECD guidelines available.”

Bayer South Africa maintained its neonicotinoid products are safe for operators, bystanders and the environment, including bees when used according to label instructions. 

“If we are serious about the sustainability of our food supply and increase of farmer income and competitiveness of the agricultural sector, the use of technology including the safe use of crop protection products are elemental for Africa for both commercial and smallholder farmers,” said Klaus Eckstein, the chief executive of Bayer Southern Africa.

“Chloronicotinyl insecticides are very important to address yield losses of pests on the African continent either through seed treatment, drench or foliar spray applications.”

The company said growers around the world relying neonicotinoids to defend their crops — including oilseed rape (canola), maize, cereals, potatoes, sugar beet and soybean — against harmful pests.

The department of agriculture, land reform and rural development told the M&G it recognises the role played by insect pollinators in food production and in preserving ecosystems. 

“South Africa takes note of the international developments on measures being taken to protect bees and other pollinators against neonicotinoids pesticides. South Africa, also agrees with the international communities that neonicotinoids pesticides do pose risks to insect pollinators, and as such measures should be taken to protect insect pollinators.

“Currently, our approach, following consultation with various stakeholders, has been that  measures to minimise risks to pollinators should be introduced, while still recognising the benefits of using neonicotinoids pesticides in ensuring abundant food supply.”

To that effect, the department said that guidelines on the management of risk of agricultural remedies on insect pollinators were developed and published in 2017.

“At this stage, based on the information available, the responsible use of neonicotinoids pesticides has not led to significant decline of insect pollinators in South Africa. However, should the information indicate that the risks posed by neonicotinoids pesticides  is becoming too unmanageable in South Africa, further regulatory measures including prohibitions, would be considered.”