February 6, 2013
The European Commission has invoked the precautionary principle and is requesting a two-year ban of a series of seed coating pesticides known as neonicotinoids. The logic for the decision is that this seed treatment (which they assume have no crop protection benefits) is presumed to be responsible for a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) where large numbers of bees fail to return to their colonies.
Some reality about the futility of a ban first.
- Neonicotinoids replaced much more toxic pesticides which did not seem to affect the bees (perhaps these will come back onto the market now) and provide significant crop protection benefits (up to 30% of certain crops could be lost without them).
- France banned or restricted certain neonicotinoids in the 1990s because of suspected effects on bees (there has been no marked reduction of CCD in France).
- Slovenia recognised the futility of their 2003 “bee-cautionary mistake” and had the courage to admit it, allowing neonicotinoids back onto the market.
- Last year, researchers from the University of Sheffield confirmed an earlier University of Guelph study (2009) clearly linking CCD to the Varroa mite virus (see the Risk-Monger blog for links where he predicted, with unfortunate precision, that, given the beauty of the precautionary principle, campaigning activists would easily ignore the best available science).
So how will Brussels’ use of the precautionary principle be different? It won’t, point!
There seems to be a link between an EFSA report and the Commission’s proposed precautionary ban. But, and here is the science bit, the EFSA report did not conclude that these neonicotinoids were responsible for CCD (rather, there were certain data gaps and no agreed risk assessment procedures that could not exclude certain risks to bees or allow “firm conclusions”). I am curious to know how the Commission officials had asked the question to EFSA (remember that EFSA is an authority in service to EU institutions – to answer their questions as the questions have been framed). EFSA is not mandated to come up with its own questions or initiate its own research or assessments. It would seem clear that the Commission did not ask EFSA: “What is causing CCD?” If they had asked whether or not neonicotinoids were causing CCD, then the answer from EFSA would have been a clear “No”. If they had asked the scientists if it were possible that neonicotinoids could have a negative influence on bee populations, then the answer is not surprising – many things could have an influence – and letting bee larvae mainline on clothianidin would not likely produce positive bee health results.
So why then did the Commission go forward and link neonicotinoids to CCD and invoke the precautionary principle? Since it is not based on best emerging science from bee researchers, I can only assume that it is, at best, based on politics, and at worst, based on cowardice. If it is based on politics, then the Sec-Gen will have to do some serious house-cleaning in DG-SANCO.
Cowardice would be based on the swarming capacity of activists to threaten Commission officials and MEPs and make their days unpleasant. EurActiv suggested that pressure came from a recent online campaign to ban these pesticides (with over two million signatures in 48 hours). AVAAZ is an intellectually neutered organisation whose sole purpose is to drive campaigns – able to get millions of activists to support other activists in a heartbeat. The people who sign on are not aware of the complexity of CCD, are not scientific, and sign many of these campaigns to be a part of movements. Often, signatories are anti-globalisation, anti-capitalist anarchists and the AVAAZ bee petition page (which gave no scientific information) appealed to their narrative:
If we build a huge swarm of public outrage now, we can push the European Commission to put our health and our environment before the profit of a few. (AVAAZ’s use of bold)
If you are an anarchist with time to kill and someone offers you the chance to attack the pesticide industry and push around government officials, what is not to like about this scenario (except, perhaps, for a global increase in malnutrition or worse). This type of action is disruptive to sound decision-making, meaningless and extortionary. It tells Commission officials and MEPs that if they don’t comply with what we want, we are going to use our force of on-line activism against you (no dialogue, no evidence, no problem). It would take an enormously courageous official to resist and consider facts, especially when the precautionary principle gives you an easy escape route. As I once said in an interview many years ago, precaution is a policy tool for cowards.
So what will happen:
- There will be an anti-lobbying campaign against Bayer and Syngenta by lobbying specialists Corporate Europe Observatory and its front group, ALTER-EU, to ensure that they cannot bring their positions and the scientific studies to the table (in the NGO world, this very effective strategy is known as “flanking”);
- European Commission officials will go home feeling good about themselves believing they have solved the CCD crisis and will no longer follow the evolution of research on the Varroa mite virus (funding for this research will dry up);
- Food production in the EU will further decline and Europeans will import more food from countries that need hard currencies more than balanced diets of its own populations;
- As food stocks are still low, this will lead to food security issues and in certain countries, failed crops, resulting in lost lives, increased malnutrition, higher susceptibility to disease and loss of development through subsequent productivity reductions;
- In several years, studies will show that the CCD crisis will not have relented, but rather than admit that the precautionary actions in 2013 were wrong, campaigners will argue that it is because these pesticides are so persistent in the environment. In other words, this is a “late lesson” and we should have banned these pesticides a long time ago and it will take a considerable time, maybe decades, until these pesticides will be removed from the environment. There will be no second guessing that tragic 2013 decision.
- A decade later, another study will show that the Varroa mite virus is being dealt with and slowly bee populations are suffering fewer CCD occurrences. But it won’t matter. At that point, European agriculture will have adjusted to far lower yields, more forests will have been cleared for agriculture in the EU and abroad, where certain developing countries have adapted to becoming Europe’s breadbasket. There will be no question of exonerating these banned neonicotinoids and allowing them back onto the market – once blacklisted, they are considered dead and buried.
This is troubling because it implies an inherent ignorance towards science in the decision-making process. It also shows the weakness of the precautionary principle (failure to consider other options once precaution has been invoked, failure to consider false positives, failure to lift the stink of blacklisting once precaution has been shown to be erroneous) and the point that, with precaution, leaders never have to worry about being responsible or accountable.
Where is the leadership today in our leaders?