A majority of French MPs have voted to approve a controversial provision authorising the temporary reintroduction of banned neonicotinoids - a class of insecticide - to save beet farmers from ravaging aphids, small sap-sucking insects. The agriculture minister said “there is no alternative”, but opponents of the bill are outraged.
MPs in France's lower assembly on Tuesday came down in favour of sugar over honey.
313 were in favour, 158 against and 56 abstained in a vote over the controversial reintroduction of banned neonics to protect beet farmers' crops from sugar beet jaundice.
The derogation will apply from January 2021 through to 1 July 2023.
The Union of Sugar Beet Growers (CGB) welcomed the government's "courage and ambition" to "sustain the seriously threatened sugar beet industry".
For the National Union of French Beekeeping (UNAF) however, the vote was "an insult to apiculture, science and the protection of living things".
The vote appeared to support the economy over biodiversity, although the minister of agriculture, Julien Denormandie, had been at pains to state the contrary during long and conflictual parliamentary debate on Monday night.
“We are all against bee-killing insecticides,” Denormandie said, “but there is currently no alternative, chemical or agronomical, which is effective enough."
Biologist Freddie-Jean Richard, a researcher at the University of Poitiers, told RFI that alternatives do exist and could be further developed.
“Ladybirds adore aphids for example, even if they cost a bit more [than insecticides]. Nettle manure is also very effective.
“There are alternatives, but sometimes there are problems developing them on a big scale because of regional constraints or intensive farming or whatever.”
France proudly banned the use of neonicotinoid-based insecticides in 2018, in line with EU directives. Such products are known to disrupt insects’ central nervous systems and have contributed to the collapse of swathes of France's honeybee colonies.
But sugar industry professionals say they need them to counter jaundice spread by green aphids which has led to severe drops in crop yields this year.
The reintroduction of seeds coated with neonicotinoids should make it possible to protect sugar yields. Otherwise the future of the industry and the 46,000 people it employs is under threat, the industry claims.
The derogation will come into effect from 2021.
- France moves to ease pesticide ban to save sugar beet farmers
- Pesticides present in three-quarters of French vegetables, study
"It is a difficult, important text, which does not seek to oppose economy and ecology," Denormandie pleaded. “The issue is our sovereignty.”
Sovereignty has become a hot button issue in France and the government argues that without the derogation, France will be put at a disadvantage compared to the dozen or so other European countries who use them.
“Killing a French sector to then import sugar from Poland, Germany or Belgium” is not an option, argues the government.
No one benefits
The government won the vote but not without opposition, particularly from the Left, the Greens and environmental groups like the Nicolas Hulot Foundation.
“This new law will save neither bees nor agriculture,” tweeted the Nicolas Hulot Foundation. “The cost of bee extinction = €2.9 billion, Cost of bailing out beet growers = €77.5 million.”
The government maintains it cannot keep all the beet farmers afloat while waiting for a replacement to neonicotinoids and that it is investing some €7 million euros to “massively speed up research into alternatives”.
Freddie-Jean Richard insists the way forward is not, however, to replace one toxic product with another.
“Waiting for a new pesticide or insecticide that does the same thing but has a different name is not the solution,” said the biologist.
“What’s for sure is that neonicotinoids have an impact of all living things: they alter the eco-system, they have very negative effects on pollinators which are already under threat, and on fish, amphibians, birds.”
In lifting the ban “we’re going to impact the whole ecosystem and the food chain, and the problem with pesticides is that they have a very long term effect”.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of the hard-Left France Unbowed party, put forward a passionate if unsuccessful motion to stop the bill saying it was "an error" and promised to take it to the Court of Justice for "endangering the life of others".
The bill now goes to the Senate on 21 October for review.