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North Carolina-based Lowe’s said the studies on neonicotinoid pesticides are inconclusive, and it was taking the steps ‘out of an abundance of caution.’

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Lowe's Cos. Inc. says it will phase out the sale of products and plants that contain pesticides linked to deaths of honey bees and other pollinators, becoming what is believed to be the largest retailer to take such a move.

The company's announcement comes days after the release of a study by the European Academies Science Advisory Council that said the agricultural use of neonicotinoid pesticides is harmful to a range of helpful insects and organisms, not just honeybees.

The paper joins a long list of studies critical of the pesticides currently banned in Europe but widely used in North America.

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Agricultural groups and the chemical companies that make the pesticides say they are safe and effective protection against harmful insects if used properly, and that honeybee populations are thriving. But some beekeepers and scientists say the chemicals are killing bees and other insects by compounding the effects of virus-bearing mites and other threats.

North Carolina-based Lowe's said the studies on neonicotinoids are inconclusive, and it was taking the steps "out of an abundance of caution."

In its 2014 Report on Social Responsibility released on Thursday, the company said it will work with the growers of its plants to eliminate the use of neonics and phase out within two years sales of lawn and garden pesticides that contain neonics.

"Our direction regarding neonics doesn't imply that there is anything wrong or unsafe with our current products," said Karen Cobb, a spokeswoman for the store that has 1,840 outlets in North America. "Products available at Lowe's are U.S. EPA-approved to be safe and effective when used according to manufacturer's directions."

Ontario last month said it planned to have rules in place by this summer that would reduce by 80 per cent the use of neonics on corn and soybean by 2017. The regulations would restrict the prophylactic use of seed treatments in an effort to ensure they are used only in areas prone to crop-destroying insects.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said last week it will no longer approve new uses for neonics pending further study of the effects on bees and other pollinators.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth last year released a study that showed 51 per cent of the plants and flowers sold at major garden stores in Canada and the United States contained neonics. "All of those plants were labelled 'bee friendly,' but were treated without any warning to consumers," said Tiffany Finck-Haynes of Friends of the Earth.

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Home Depot has said it would begin labelling plants that contained or were grown using the pesticides. "We offer our customers the ability to choose from a variety of lawn and garden products and currently carry over 40 environmentally preferred alternatives. In addition we are actively working with our live goods suppliers to find alternative insecticides for protecting live goods and bees," Home Depot said in an e-mail on Thursday.

"What makes Lowe's unique is they are the largest retailer [to] make a time-bound commitment, whereas Home Depot said they are labelling their plants and working with their suppliers to find safer alternatives, [but] they haven't made any time-bound public commitments on how they are actually phasing out neonics on their plants and on their off-the-shelf products," Ms. Finck-Haynes said by phone.

Bayer, which makes neonic-based pesticides used by farmers and gardeners, did not respond to an interview request.

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