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Neonicotinoid pesticides : how can European mirror measures be made more ambitious ?

Mathilde Dupré & Stéphanie Kpenou, 29 June 2023

[English] [français]

Putting an end to the dichotomy of health and environmental standards that apply to products consumed in the EU (depending on their EU/non-EU origin) is a declared objective of the European Commission in its Farm to Fork strategy and of the European Parliament as part of its work on the Common Agricultural Policy reform in 2020. The subject has also been taken up politically by the French Presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022.

But progress is slow to materialize, particularly in the area of pesticides. Dozens of substances are banned in the EU because of the danger they pose to the health of producers, consumers or the environment (pollinators in particular). However, imported products can still be treated with these substances, provided certain residue limits are not exceeded.

In February 2023, the EU adopted its first mirror measure on environmental grounds. The regulation in question bans, by 2026, the import of products containing traces of two neonicotinoids banned in the EU, thiamethoxam and clothianidin, due to their toxicity on pollinators.

In a new report, the Veblen Institute, the European Environmental Bureau and the Fondation pour la Nature et l’Homme examine the scope and legal robustness of this first environmental mirror measure. Beyond the surprise of seeing only 2 of the 4 neonicotinoids banned in the EU covered by this new regulation, the study shows that a more ambitious approach could be more legally solid (in terms of compliance with WTO rules) and, above all, more effective in protecting the environment. Protecting the environment means banning not just residues but the entire use of these substances during the production of agricultural goods, whether intended for human consumption, animal feed or energy use. An in-depth analysis of the existing traceability and control mechanisms in the livestock and organic farming sectors supports this approach.

The slowness of the European Union’s action is even more regrettable considering that it has been very active in negotiating and ratifying trade agreements that encourage both European exports of pesticides banned in the EU to third countries and imports of agricultural products treated with these products, such as the draft EU-Mercosur agreement.

This is why our three organizations recommend this as a priority :

  • lower MRLs to the detection threshold for banned or unapproved neonicotinoids, and all highly hazardous pesticides, by extending controls to all agricultural production (crops intended for animal feed, energy or ornamental use)
  • Develop an approach based on a complete ban on the most hazardous pesticides. Concerning the technical feasibility of such a ban, the EU could draw inspiration from the control and traceability mechanisms already in place concerning organic farming products or the ban on growth hormones in imported animal products.

To be consistent with WTO rules, the European Commission should also put an end to existing double standards by banning :

  • the manufacture, storage, transport and export of substances banned by the EU;
  • derogations granted by member states for these banned substances, giving priority to incentives for the adoption of more sustainable agricultural practices

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