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Posted 08 March 04

 

Studies suggest that pollen gathered from Sunflowers may contain deadly traces of pesticide.

Photograph:Raf Casert/AP

Text taken from Le Monde and reprinted in Guardian weekly March 4-10 2004

Insecticide ban as billions of bees die

Chemicals manufacturer insist product poses no risk to animals or humans

Benoît Hopquin

On February 23, after some hesitation, the French agriculture minister, Hervé Gaymard, ruled on the highly controversial issue of fipronil an active ingredient used in insecticides , which beekeepers in southwest of France claim to be responsible for deaths of billions of bees. He suspended the future sale and use of several fipronil based products, including 'Regent', a seed coating currently produced by BASF, one of the world's largest chemical manufacturers.

Gaymard added, however, that this spring farmers will be allowed to sow fiponil-coated seeds already in their possession. Similarly, wholesalers will be permitted to dispose of all their existing stocks.

The ministers move followed an earlier decision by an investigating magistrate in St-Gaudens, southwest France, to prosecute BASF and Bayer (which manufactured fiponil-based products from June 2002 to March 2003) in connection with a mysteriously high death rate among bees. He charged the firms with  "the sale of a toxic product harmful to the health of humans and animals",  "complicity in the destruction of livestock" and " the marketing of a product without authorisation".

The magistrate's vigorous action was the latest episode in the long fight that beekeepers have been waging against pesticides. From 1994 on, they noted that swarms of bees were dying in large numbers and began to suspect that insecticides were the cause.

Fipronil in the seed coating is gradually released during the plant's growth and protects it against insect pest. In theory the extremely active molecule disappears before the plant flowers. Several studies quoted by beekeepers show, however, that the molecule is still present in the pollen of the flowers (particularly in those of the sunflower) when it is gathered by the bees.

They maintain that fipronil is ingested by the bees and either kills them or disrupts the organisation of the hives. However, the manufacturers cite other studies that show their products to be harmless.

The controversy intensified recently when several studies suggested that fipronil was also a threat to human health. Researchers detected traces of the pesticide in silage consumed by cattle. It accumulated in the animals fat and milk, they said, thus contaminating the food chain.

Gérard Arnold, a scientist with the National Scientific Research Centre(CRNS), issued a report last December that noted the presence of fipronil in the air. His report was passed on to Guary by Jean-François Narbonne, a professor at Bordeaux University and an expert on food safety.

Narbonne argued that until 2003 the product had benefited from an official classification that did not reflect its true level of toxicity. He said that the degree of exposure in food often exceeded the admitted daily dose, particularly in the case of children. "The health minister should have been alerted", he said.

BASF rejects such claims. The food department of the agriculture ministry is equally categorical: "There's no threat to human health either through direct exposure or through the consumption of animal or vegetable products," says Thierry Klinger, its director.

When Guary searched the offices of BASF, Bayer and the food department, he found evidence that raised questions about the authorisation procedures in the case of 'Regent'. It would seem that since coming onto the market in 1996 the product has received a series of renewed temporary sales authorisations, rather than a marketing authorisation  that requires a more rigorous procedure.

Meanwhile a knight in shining armour has appeared in the person of Viscount Philippe de Villiers, the right wing president of the departmental council of Vendée, western France. In his recently published book, Quand Les Abeillies Meurent ...(When bees die ...), he describes how he was alerted to the problem of fipronil by a beekeeper whose hives had been devastated. As his shoes scrunched across a carpet of dead bees, De Villiers became increasingly angry with "the monstrous mating of the agro-chemical industry and the state".

The book, whose title quotes Albert Einstein's remark that "if bees were to disappear , man would only have a few years to live", charts the Beekeepers' struggle and castigates the "servile" behaviour of civil servants, the use of disinformation, the agriculture ministry and Europe.

Not surprisingly, BASF and Bayer have issued libel proceedings against De Villiers. February 20 and 25

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