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ENVIRONMENT

Bee-killing pesticides: France’s ban begins Saturday

A ban on five neonicotinoid pesticides enters into force in France on Saturday, placing the country at the forefront of a campaign against chemicals blamed for decimating critical populations of crop-pollinating bees.

Bee-killing pesticides: France's ban begins Saturday
French beekeeper Thomas Le Glatin inspects his beehive frames in Ploerdut, western France. Photo: AFP
The move has been hailed by beekeepers and environmental activists, but lamented by cereal and sugar beet farmers who claim there are no effective alternatives for protecting their valuable crops against insects.
 
With its ban, France has gone further than the European Union, which voted to outlaw the use of three neonicotinoids — clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam — in crop fields.
   
Heavily agriculture-reliant France banned these three neonicotinoids plus thiacloprid and acetamiprid, not only outdoors but in greenhouses too.
   
These are the only five neonicotinoid pesticides hitherto authorised for use in Europe.
   
Introduced in the mid-1990s, lab-synthesised neonicotinoids are based on the chemical structure of nicotine, and attack the central nervous system of insects.
   
They were meant to be a less harmful substitute to older pesticides, and are now the most widely-used to treat flowering crops, including fruit trees, beets, wheat, canola, and vineyards.
 
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Photo: AFP
 
Bees at risk
 
In recent years, bees started dying off from “colony collapse disorder,” a mysterious scourge blamed partly on pesticides along with mites, viruses, and fungi, or some combination of these.
   
Scientific studies have since shown that neonicotinoids harm bee reproduction and foraging by diminishing sperm quality and scrambling the insects' memory and navigation functions.
   
Exposure also lowers their resistance to disease.
   
Some research has suggested that — like nicotine for humans — neonicotinoids hold an addictive attraction for bees, which shunned healthy food for pesticide-laced treats in lab tests.
   
The UN has warned that nearly half of insect pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, risk global extinction.
   
This is particularly concerning in the context of a 2016 study which found that about 1.4 billion jobs and three-quarters of all crops depend on pollinators, mainly bees, which provide free plant fertilisation services worth billions of dollars.
   
Some French farmers are angry over the ban, however, and say there is not enough evidence that neonicotinoids are responsible for bee decline.
 
A beekeeper with a placard reading “Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides. Enough!” during a demonstration in Strasbourg on June 7th. Photo: AFP    
 
“A large number (of agricultural producers) find themselves at a dramatic technical dead-end,” a collection of farmers' bodies said in a joint statement calling for exemptions in sectors “where there are no alternatives, or insufficient ones” to neonicotinoids.
   
The ban, the groups claimed, “will exacerbate unfair competition with European and non-European producers” still allowed to use the pesticides.
 
A report by France's ANSES public health agency said in May there were “sufficiently effective, and operational” alternatives to the majority of neonicotinoids used in France.
 
Not enough
 
Some believe the measures do not go far enough.
   
“We should not limit ourselves to this family” of pesticides, argued Francois Veillerette of environmental lobby group Generations Futures. “Many others need banning too.”
   
Many are concerned that neonicotinoids will continue to be authorised for use in non-agricultural pest control, such as in flea collars for pet cats and dogs, or in household fly traps.
   
The ANSES said in a report in February these products pose no risk to human health, provided they are used as specified.
   
The ban pitted French agriculture minister Stephane Travert, who lobbied for an easing, against environment minister Nicolas Hulot who refused to back down.
   
Hulot resigned on Tuesday, saying he felt “all alone” in the government on environmental issues.
   
Earlier this month, Canada announced plans to phase out clothianidin and thiamethoxam.
   
The French ban allows for case-by-case exemptions on the use of acetamiprid until July 1, 2020.

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ENVIRONMENT

France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Firefighting teams and equipment from six EU nations started to arrive in France on Thursday to help battle a spate of wildfires, including a fierce blaze in the parched southwest that has forced thousands to evacuate.

France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Most of the country is sweltering under a summer heatwave compounded by a record drought – conditions most experts say will occur more often as a result of rapid climate change.

“We must continue, more than ever, our fight against climate disruption and … adapt to this climate disruption,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said after arriving at a fire command post in the village of Hostens, south of Bordeaux.

The European Commission said four firefighting planes would be sent to France from Greece and Sweden, as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania.

“Our partners are coming to France’s aid against the fires. Thank you to them. European solidarity is at work!” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.

“Across the country over 10,000 firefighters and security forces are mobilised against the flames… These soldiers of fire are our heroes,” he said.

In total, 361 foreign firefighters were  dispatched to assist their 1,100 French colleagues deployed in the worst-hit part of the French southwest.

A first contingent of 65 German firefighters, followed by their 24 vehicles, arrived Thursday afternoon and were to go into action at dawn Friday, officials said.

Among eight major fires currently raging, the biggest is the Landiras fire in the southwest Gironde department, whose forests and beaches draw huge tourist crowds each summer.

It had already burned 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) in July – the driest month seen in France since 1961 – before being contained, but it continued to smoulder in the region’s tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.

Since flaring up again Tuesday, which officials suspect may have been caused by arson, it has burned 7,400 hectares, destroyed or damaged 17 homes, and forced 10,000 people to quit their homes, said Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Mendousse of the Gironde fire and rescue service.

Borne said nine firefighting planes are already dumping water on the blaze, with two more to be in service by the weekend.

“Gigantic”
“We battled all night to stop the fire from spreading, notably to defend the village of Belin-Beliet,” Mendousse told journalists in Hostens.

On several houses nearby, people hung out white sheets saying: “Thank you for saving our homes” and other messages of support for the weary fire battalions.

“You’d think we’re in California, it’s gigantic… And they’re used to forest fires here but we’re being overwhelmed on all sides — nobody could have expected this,” Remy Lahlay, a firefighter deployed near Hostens in the Landes de Gascogne natural park, told AFP.

With temperatures in the region hitting nearly 40C on Thursday and forecast to stay high until at least Sunday, “there is a very serious risk of new outbreaks” for the Landiras fire, the prefecture of the Gironde department said.

Acrid smoke has spread across much of the southwestern Atlantic coast and its beaches that draw huge crowds of tourists each summer, with the regional ARS health agency “strongly” urging people to wear protective face masks.

The smoke also forced the closing of the A63 motorway, a major artery toward Spain, between Bordeaux and Bayonne.

The government has urged employers to allow leaves of absence for volunteer firefighters to help fight the fires.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, more than 1,500 firefighters were also battling a fire that has raged for days in the mountainous Serra da Estrela natural park in the centre of the country.

It has already burned 10,000 hectares, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).

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