The Reintroduction of Neonicotinoids

One step forward and two steps back

On 6 October, the French National Assembly voted to pass a law to reintroduce neonicotinoids on the grounds that there was no alternative to protect the French sugar industry suffering from an outbreak of M.Persicae insects that is threatening the beet crop. However, neonicotinoids have been banned in Europe and France since 2016, due to their toxicity and potential harmful effects on biodiversity. Volt France was invited to contribute to a common position of Génération Écologie. In this document, we will present our analysis of the situation and develop our position.

About neonicotinoids

Neonicotinoids are chemicals that emulate natural nicotine. They are one of the most widely used pesticides in the world (28% of global use), with the most notorious compounds remaining clothianidin (Bayer - banned in France), imidacloprid (Bayer - partially banned) and thiamethonaxm (Syngenta - banned, except temporarily for vineyards). Neonicotinoids kill pests because the molecular structure of the chemicals is highly active on brain cell receptors, resulting in paralysis and eventual death. They are also systemic, i.e. they diffuse into the plant's sap. Once applied to the seeds, they grow with the plant and will also be present in the leaves and pollen.

Effects on biodiversity and humans

When bees began to disappear in the mid-1990s, research focused on discovering the exact cause of the disappearance, using both laboratory and field studies. A landmark study funded by Bayer and led by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Germany, Hungary and the UK found a correlation between bee population decline and pesticide use in relation to exposure. The increase in colonies also correlates significantly with the concentration of neonicotinoids in the hives and although their use is strictly regulated, the actual proliferation of neonicotinoids has been greater than expected. This is because neonicotinoids are systemic, easily soluble in water and have a shelf life of up to three years, with residual components also remaining toxic during this period. They spread easily and affect the brains not only of pollinating insects and others, but also of humans. When we consume toxic substances up the food chain, they accumulate in our bodies (known as bioconcentration) and can affect brain development, especially in children. The problem is exacerbated by the massive use of pesticides, which is necessary because of excessive monoculture, which reduces the quality of the soil and makes crops an easy target for pests, and by the depletion of groundwater due to droughts that herald climate change.

The sugar and beet industry

France is the largest sugar producer in Europe, with beet as one of the main raw materials. The industry employs around 26,000 farm workers, while 25 processing plants belonging to three companies and two cooperatives employ 6,700 workers directly and 12,000 indirectly. Tereos is the largest cooperative with an annual turnover of €25 billion (2nd in the world). Half of the sugar production is destined for the export market, with the majority being exported to the European Union.

Tableau 1 : Producteurs de betteraves sucrières de l'UE27+Royaume-Uni (2019/2020)

In 2017, the limit on the area that can be cultivated with beet was lifted, resulting in an overall increase in beet cultivation. The lower sugar price in 2019 will only lead to a slight decrease. However, due to the yellow beetle virus transmitted by the M.Persicae aphid, the industry is expected to lose around 30-50% of its production this year. A particularly warm spring has allowed these aphids to multiply rapidly. While some fields are not affected, others are expected to lose 80% of their production. On average, the loss is estimated at 1000 euros per hectare, which represents a loss of 200-230 million euros for the sector.

Tableau 2 : Production française de betteraves sucrières (en milliers de tonnes)

The long-term perspective must also be considered. Monoculture and the excessive use of pesticides degrade the quality of the soil and lead to a decrease in production. This practice is certainly a factor influencing the price of a hectare of agricultural land, which in 2015 was €8,000 in France, compared to €10,000 in Spain, €18,000 in Germany and €48,000 in the Netherlands. Soil is both a private and a public good and fertile arable land is not an unlimited resource, which means that the government must monitor the state of the soil and provide incentives to maintain or at best improve the quality of the soil.

It is in this context that the French government decided to cancel its 2016 ban and allow the reintroduction of neonicotinoids in France. It argued that beetroot is a plant that prevents neonicotinoids from spreading too widely in the environment and that, since beetroot is harvested before flowering and because of its low guttation, the transmission of neonicotinoids to pollinating bees would automatically be reduced. Furthermore, it was argued that several European countries already use exceptions for the limited use of neonicotinoids.

Technical alternatives

Studies often cite pyrethroids as alternatives to neonicotinoids, but the M.persicae aphid is already resistant to most of the chemicals used. In addition, the use of pyrethroids has other disadvantages, as larger quantities would have to be dispersed by air, resulting in a greater spread of the toxic chemicals, although they are destroyed by sunlight and/or water within two days.

Tableau 3 : Développement de la résistance de M.persicae

The literature on ecological alternatives is contradictory. Some studies claim that over 73% of a sample group (130 farms) could find a non-chemical solution to pest control, while others claim that this will not be possible for this particular crisis. The Volt Mapping of Policies still lacks a section on pesticide use in agriculture. However, the following approaches should all be part of a recommendation for non-chemical solutions:

  • Conservation and increase of natural aphid predators
  • Alarm pheromones that attract predators to certain areas
  • Polyculture or permaculture to conserve income when a crop is subject to disease
  • Mating disruption techniques to prevent aphid mating
  • Application of a protective coating using paraffins or argyle oil

A combination of the above elements could also have served as a component of an alternative solution to the reintroduction of neonicotinoids. A solution could for example consider three phases:

  1. Short term: compensate for financial losses for one or two years with fallow fields
  2. Medium term: Switch to known varieties with slightly lower yields in combination with co-cropping - in the case of the aphid, planting a crop whoe smell the aphids dislike
  3. Long term: Consider encouraging change in means of agricultural production

MPossible ways to compensate farmers

A 30-50% drop in production would be a critical blow to farmers. However, growers could simply plant different crops. So this is primarily an issue for the sugar industry and the cooperatives. When looking at the financial mechanisms, the following elements come to mind:

EU CAP funds

Art. 37 allows subsidies for insurance instruments and Art. 38 allows them for compensation of crop losses due to environmental risks. The European Agricultural Guarantee Fund is already supposed to finance the restructuring of the sugar industry by reducing "unprofitable production capacity". Perhaps the EC ruling n⁰ 320/2006 could help finance the transition of beet growers to sustainable production techniques and pest control.

National Agricultural Fund for Health and Environmental Mutualisation (FMSE)

60 million and therefore cannot compensate for all potential losses. However, parts of the fund could be mobilised following the decision of the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Committee for Agricultural Risk Management.

Income stabilisation tool

Although it does not yet exist, a mutualisation fund financed by farmers' contributions, which would compensate up to 70% of any farm that lost more than 30% of its production, would be another tool to stabilise agricultural production against environmental risks. 

National Fund for Risk Management in Agriculture (FNGRA)

The FNGRA only covers losses due to pests and the beet sector suffers from insects which are not covered by the "agricultural disasters". Furthermore, the fund would only cover 35% of losses above EUR 1,000 and is therefore not applicable as a compensation solution.

The Problems of the Law

The change in the law avoids the need for the government to rescue private companies, which usually results in an unfavourable public response, and sets a precedent for other industries that require similar rescues. The usual argument applies to unforeseen losses that need to be socialised, whereas maximised profits do not take these risks into account. Furthermore, climate change and its consequences should not be seen as a surprise for an industry that is highly dependent on certain environmental conditions. Finally, one could examine the state aid made available to car manufacturers during the first wave of Covid-19, for example the 5 billion euro credit line granted to Renault. These rescue measures could be made conditional on investment in a different business model and adaptation to a 'new' reality. For the car manufacturers, as for the potential rescue of the sugar industry, the French government could have set a positive precedent by making compensation for production losses conditional on the fallowing of part of the fields to allow the soil to start regenerating.

Instead, reintroduction introduces several new problems:

Harming bees and biodiversity in general

Neonicotinoids are harmful to bees, humans and biodiversity as a whole, mainly due to their persistent and difficult to control residues. Although beet treatment may result in less exposure, the law does not restrict the use of neonicotinoids to beet treatment alone - opening the door for all industries to re-apply them until 2023.

The urgency

There are no chemical or non-chemical alternatives in the short term. Consideration could have been given to limiting the law to the beet industry only or to limiting use to greenhouses, but this was apparently abandoned for fear that the law would not be passed for the benefit of one industry.

Economic and social costs of a ban and a permit

Growers could possibly compensate by switching to other crops, but a loss of 30-50% of production would put manufacturers and cooperatives in a difficult position, with the potential risk of job losses. If one of Volt's objectives is to make Europe an economic powerhouse, this must be compatible with our sustainability objectives and our values of respect for the environment and health in general.

France's role in Europe

Europe has defined the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies as part of its Green New Deal, with a focus on significantly reducing the use of pesticides. France was one of the first countries to set an ambitious reduction target of 50% by 2025. One wonders how France, the 7th largest user of pesticides in the world, commits to other EU members to significantly reduce pesticide use on the one hand, and to lift the ban on neonicotinoids on the other. While other industries have been saved by Covid-19, the beet industry sees its own law as a bad example of how credible France's claims and commitments at EU level can be.


The precautionary principle applies in many situations where people could be exposed to a hazard. It posits that there is a social responsibility to protect humans from exposure to a hazard when science has found a plausible risk. Protection can only be relaxed if new scientific findings provide strong evidence that no harm will result. How can this principle be applied in the production of a Renault car, where a robot can harm a man, but not, for example, during lunch when that same man consumes tap water polluted with neonicotinoids?

Volt France's position

We are in favour of maintaining the ban on neonicotinoids as their reintroduction would be incompatible with our environmental objectives and values. The M.Persicae pest will return in the future, as the likelihood of mild springs will only increase due to climate change. Neonicotinoids will therefore be needed every year and we have until 2023 to develop an alternative. Until then, biodiversity will pay the price that our government is not prepared to pay by changing the law - a law that weakens the principle of non-regression and a price that will only increase the longer we wait to reorientate our agriculture towards more sustainability. Volt believes that soil is both a private and public good. The quality of topsoil is critical to the long-term viability of agriculture and the government must provide incentives to ensure that soil quality is at least maintained, if not improved. As such, Volt believes that it is preferable to compensate farmers for planting different crops or leaving their fields fallow, as opposed to reintroducing neonicotinoids. In addition, the sugar industry should be compensated for the loss of production, but only if a programme is implemented that ensures that soil restoration is factored into the business model.

Sources :

  • ANSES, Risques et bénéfices des produits phytopharmaceutiques à base de néonicotinoïdes et de leurs alternatives, 2018
  • Liang-Liang Cui , The functional significance of E-b-Farnesene: Does it influence the populations of aphid natural enemies in the fields?, 2011
  • Linda M. Field, The case for neonicotinoids in pelleted sugar beet seeds, 2018
  • Dave Goulson, Environmental Risks and Challenges Associated with Neonicotinoid Insecticides, 2018
  • Dave Goulson, Call to restrict neonicotinoids, 2018
  • INSERM, Pesticides effets sur la santé, 2013
  • Kimura-Kuroda, Nicotine-Like Effects of the Neonicotinoid Insecticides Acetamiprid and Imidacloprid on Cerebellar Neurons from Neonatal Rats, 2012
  • L.W.Pisa, Effects of neonicotinoids and fipronil on non-target invertebrates, 2014
  • Hélène Soubelet, Synthèse de l’article Country-specific effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on honey bees and wild bees - Spécificité nationale des effets des néonicotinoides sur les abeilles domestiques et sauvages, 2017
  • Hélène Soubelet, Synthèse de l’article Chronic exposure to neonicotinoids reduces honey bee health near corn crops L'exposition chronique aux néonicotinoïdes réduit la santé des abeilles dans les cultures de maïs, 2017
  • Jeroen P. van der Sluijs, Neonicotinoids, bee disorders and the sustainability of pollinatorservices, 2013
  • Arnaud Gossement, Néonicotinoïdes : présentation du projet de loi "relatif aux conditions de mise sur le marché de certains produits phytopharmaceutiques en cas de danger sanitaire", 2020