Pesticides ban is a triumph for people power, and Europe

The push for a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides – believed to be linked to a dramatic decline in the populations of bees and other pollinators – mobilised millions of European citizens, some of them for the first time, says Brigit Strawbridge

On Monday 29 April 2013, EU member states voted to support the European commission’s proposal to restrict the use of neonicotinoid pesticides for two years.

The ruling comes after scores of scientific studies linked the substances to a dramatic decline in the populations of bees and other pollinators, and follows months of deliberation about the case for action, with agricultural lobbyists claiming that a ban would negatively impact food production and prices.

As someone dedicated to raising awareness of the importance, beauty and wonder of bees, I had mixed feelings when I first heard the results. Although immensely relieved by the outcome of the vote, I was disappointed that our own government had voted against the partial ban and that the temporary restrictions didn’t go far enough.

However, we must remember the enormity of what has been achieved in a short period of time. This time last year, relatively few people were so aware of bee decline, and most didn’t realise that the problem affects not just bees but many other pollinators and invertebrate species in general. Fewer still had heard of neonicotinoids. Speaking to a beekeeping group last autumn, I was surprised to discover that, even among the beekeeping fraternity, there seemed to be a huge gap of awareness.

Then, towards the end of 2012, things suddenly started to shift. Thanks to the efforts of charities like Buglife, the Soil Association, PAN UK and Friends of the Earth; excellent reporting in the mainstream press from journalists including Michael McCarthy (the Independent) and Damian Carrington (the Guardian); online petitions from Avaaz and 38 Degrees and the tremendous power of social media, amazing things began to happen.

Campaign groups and individuals across Europe joined forces to call upon their governments to ban or restrict the use of neonicotinoids. People who had never before taken action in this way, wrote letters to their MPs and plucked up the courage to go into garden centres, DIY stores and supermarkets to ask questions about products that contained the pesticides implicated in bee decline.

By the time EU members states met in March 2013 to vote for the first time on the commission’s proposal to restrict neonicotinoids, over two and a half million people had signed the Avaaz petition calling for a ban.

With no qualified majority in March, the vote was rescheduled for the end of April. Given the weighted voting system used, it was imperative that large countries like the UK, Germany and France should vote in support of the partial ban. It appeared that Germany and the UK, which both abstained in March, would vote against the restrictions.

But after the first vote, campaign groups and the public stepped up their efforts and, at the eleventh hour, the German government announced it would support the proposals.

The UK government still voted against, but once the temporary restrictions are in place, there will be breathing space for campaigners to lobby further.

The important thing is that this vote provided a catalyst for a shifting awareness of the importance of pollinators and the need for us to work together to protect them. It has also created an incredible wave of optimism and empowerment among people who had never before been involved in a campaign of this kind.

Last, but not least, it has highlighted the fact that when an individual government, such as our own, takes a stance that is likely to prove damaging to the health of the planet and ultimately ourselves, this stance can be overruled because we are members of the European Union.