France relaxes ban on pesticides harmful to bees to help sugar industry

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PARIS (Reuters) – French lawmakers on Tuesday approved a bill allowing sugar beet growers to use banned pesticides to protect bees, a move hailed by farmers affected by crop diseases but condemned by groups green as being more backward by the government.

The proposal, which contradicts a promise by President Emmanuel Macron during his presidential campaign not to change the ban on so-called neonicotinoid pesticides, aims to help a sugar industry weakened by a drop in prices that has led to plant closures.

Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie told the National Assembly during heated debates over the bill that it was designed to protect France’s self-sufficiency in sugar and was not anti-environmental.

Environmental activists claim that neonicotinoids contribute to the decline of bees by disrupting their sense of direction and the way they reproduce.

To avoid seeing farmers, who have seen an average 15% drop in production this year, turn away from the harvest, the government has proposed that they be allowed to use neonicotinoids on sugar beet seeds until on July 1, 2023, relaxing a ban in effect since 2018.

Scientists and producers, meanwhile, have pledged to stimulate research into alternatives.

Environmental groups decried the exemption, calling it a U-turn that threatens the ecosystem and public health, mainly because chemical residues are believed to remain in the soil and water.

“History will remember that, despite scientific evidence and pressure from public opinion, this government continues to encourage the poisoning of soils, animals and our food,” said Clément Senechal, activist for Greenpeace France , in a press release.

In France, the leading sugar producer in the European Union, 420,000 hectares were planted with sugar beets this year, down 5% from last year, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Average yields are seen down 11%, but growers said they have dropped 30-50% in fields affected by yellows.

The bill is sent to the Senate before a second vote in the lower house.

Report by Sybille de La Hamaide; edited by Barbara Lewis

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