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European Union high court nixes neonicotinoid exemptions

Emergency use of prohibited pesticides to treat seeds is not permitted, ruling says

by Britt E. Erickson
January 23, 2023


Sugar beets growing in soil.
Credit: Shutterstock
Sugar beet growers in the European Union are scrambling to find an alternative to neonicotinoid insecticides, following a high court ruling.

The European Union’s high court has put an end to emergency exemptions for seeds treated with neonicotinoid pesticides. In a Jan. 19 ruling, the European Court of Justice states that “the placing on the market and use of seeds treated with those products have been expressly prohibited by an implementing regulation.”

The European Commission banned outdoor uses of neonicotinoids in 2018 to protect pollinators, including bees. But the Commission then granted dozens of temporary emergency exemptions, allowing some growers to continue using the pesticides.

In 2019, a Belgian beekeeper and two environmental groups, Nature & Progrès Belgique and Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Europe, filed a lawsuit to stop the exemptions. The case specifically targets the use of neonicotinoids on sugar beet seeds in Belgium, but it has implications for all EU member states.

According to PAN Europe, more than 200 emergency pesticide exemptions, known as derogations, were granted in the EU in the past 4 years, and nearly half of them pertain to neonicotinoids.

“This success will have an EU-wide effect, to protect bees and insects across the EU, as well as citizen’s health,” Marc Fichers, secretary general of Nature & Progrès Belgique, says in a statement. “Derogations with neonicotinoid-treated seeds are now definitely banned.”

Sugar beet growers and sugar producers are disappointed in the court ruling. They claim that no effective alternatives to neonicotinoids are available to control weevils, flea beetles, and disease-spreading aphids on sugar beets.

“This incomprehensible decision marks a divorce between legal interpretation and the agronomic reality facing growers,” Elisabeth Lacoste, director of the International Confederation of European Beet Growers, says in a statement. “It pushes many of them in an unprecedented situation a few weeks before the start of the sugar beet sowing season and leads to an extreme uncertainty and chaotic situation.”

Neonicotinoids are still widely used in the US, primarily as soybean and corn seed treatments. The US Environmental Protection Agency implemented restrictions to reduce the harmful effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators in early 2020 and plans to update the measures later this year.



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