The Risk-Monger

 

May is parade month in Brussels, but one cannot help but already notice the impressive parade of stupid marching through this town, and nowhere more can this be better exemplified than in the activism surrounding bee health and neonicotinoid pesticides.

For much of the last four years, campaigners have been falling over themselves using the honeybee-loss data from one colder than normal winter as a justification for immediate action. Never waste a good crisis, but when you are sitting on the edge of a great Armageddon scare, it is time to fire up your PR engines. And so Greenpeace, through not one, but two separate campaigns, started showing how a world without bees could lead to mass starvation and economic collapse. Well-funded “Save the bees” campaigners started showing up in every European capital in either silly bee costumes, or worse, dressed up as Vivienne Westwood. A group of activist scientists (mostly sociologists who had never done bee research) were able to get funding from a group of anti-industry, pro-organic food foundations to spread their selective science via seasoned activist campaign media specialists. Even Einstein was commissioned back into service, with a doomsday quote attributed to him (no one ever fact-checks that he actually had never said that). Testament to the size of their campaign testicles, the environmental activist scaremongering even made the cover of Time Magazine. There was only one thing missing: Facts.

But facts don’t matter in Brussels (especially during parade season). With the membership of the EFSA Bee Risk Assessment Working Group stacked in the activists’ favour, they managed to get a sentence (based on an internal draft guidance document that no one has ever accepted) that gave those with mal-intentions in DG Sanco the justification to act to remove neonicotinoids from the farmers’ crop protection toolkit. And then after achieving that coup de grâce, DG Sanco (now Santé) then decided (I wish I were making this up) to go out and find some facts to justify their decision. But this, unfortunately, proved to be the unpleasant part.

Honeybees are not at risk from neonics

Most of the data from the European Commission’s own research (like Epilobee) showed that there were insignificant honeybee declines, and where there were, it was due to cold winters or diseases and poor hive management by bee-keepers. So the European Commission contacted outside scientists for the data they needed but could not themselves provide. Recent studies though, have proven to be uncomfortable for those who want to justify their belief that a) the honeybees have a problem, and b) it is due to pesticides.

EASAC, the European Academies Science Advisory Council, recently published a study for the European Commission where they concluded that there was no threat to honeybees from neonicotinoids. In the Executive Summary, they admit:

The honey bee has also become the main indicator of the effects of neonicotinoids, with some field studies having failed to show detectable effects on colony survival at field level exposures. Yet the honey bee colony structure provides a resilient buffer against losses of its foragers and workers.

The EASAC report even admits, on page 11, the basic fact that honeybee colonies in Europe have increased between 2005 and 2010 – during the period that neonicotinoids were most widely used. A world without bees? Hardly!

Last week, Nature released a study that also recognised that honeybee colonies were not adversely affected. While it focused on wild bees, it admitted that honeybees did not show any decline from neonicotinoids. Meanwhile, their methodology on wild bee field tests have been challenged.

So many recent studies since the anti-neonic activist campaigns, have consistently shown that THERE IS NO THREAT TO HONEYBEES, and even in cases where there are bee declines, IT IS NOT FROM NEONICOTINOIDS! Sorry to have to use capitals, but people don’t seem to read any more. So the great Greenpeace campaigns with the empty supermarket shelves in a world without bees? WRONG! Time Magazine? WRONG! The IUCN activist science publications showing, as they had predicted, that neonicotinoids are responsible for honeybee loss? WRONG! The imposition of the European Commission Poudelet Precautionary Ban on neonicotinoids? WRONG! Therefore, with these facts, we can now let farmers protect their crops again with the best available risk management tools: neonicotinoids? WRONG!

Facts don’t matter

Regrettably, in a world where facts don’t matter, facts that disagree with something someone has already decided on, matter even less. So now the activists, unwilling to give up their funding honeypots, are campaigning even harder, with better PR tools, to cement their victories and keep neonicotinoids banned (despite the facts). In the last two months, activists have stopped talking about risks to honeybees (a wise decision given that they are evidently thriving) and the end to humanity if we continue to use pesticides. The focus has shifted to the risks to wild bees and bumble bees given that the recent studies could not rule out risks to these pollinators (due to the obvious lack of data). Absence of data, in Brussels, equates to the presence of campaign opportunities. There are even a few wild species of bees that could be considered as endangered (thus upping the Armageddon index a notch higher).

So even though science has spoken and showed that neonicotinoids are not a threat to honeybees, it will take at least a decade to produce data to confirm the same conclusion for wild bees. In other words, farmers will not be able to protect their crops and environmental activists can continue to run their scare campaigns, feckless and fact-free, for the next decade (translation: until all pesticides are removed from the market). Oh, and the scientists will get bucket-loads of funding to do extremely complicated (and questionable) field studies on wild bees. Everyone is happy (everyone that matters, that is! Forget about the farmers or bees).

So what makes this parade of stupid such a prick in the side of thinking people? Here are some facts about neonicotinoids that make this whole sorry story such a tragedy (and why the precautionary principle is such a destructive policy tool):

  • Neonicotinoids are effective as a systemic pesticide, addressing only the pests that bite into the plant. Far less chemical (around 90% less according to farmers I had spoken to last week in Washington) is used in neonic seed treatment than the less-efficient, older conventional pyrethroids or organophosphates that are sprayed indiscriminately across leaf, flower and soil. In the case of the flea beetle that has devasted oil-seed rape crops across Europe this year following the Poudelet neonicotinoid ban, a farmer has about eight hours to spray the flea beetle with conventional sprays before it destroys the plant – in the case of neonics, the flea beetle meets its maker the minute it chomps into the plant.
  • Farmers prefer neonicotinoids since, as a seed treatment, there are no risks in application (no need to suit up in protective gear to spray fields). And they know that they work – the older more toxic chemicals are far less effective. Farmers are mystified that some ill-motivated amateur bee-keeper in DG Sanco took an effective, safe and much more environmentally friendly crop protection product off the market and left them with more toxic chemicals that barely worked and needed to be indiscriminately sprayed a multitude of times. Farmers realise that facts, rather than wishful thinking, are how they can manage risks and bring a crop to market.
  • Where the parade of stupid marches to an absurd drum-beat is in the promotion of organic farming as an alternative. It is commonly accepted that, depending on the crop, climate and season, organic generally produces 40% less than conventional farming (why so few farmers bother or can survive in Europe). So more organic farming will mean more forest and meadow-land being ploughed under. If there is really a concern for the health of wild bees and bumble bees (as the new Armageddon campaign has so pronounced), then shouldn’t regulators be protecting the wild bees’ habitats??? But we must understand that it is not stupidity that drives this decision to plough more meadows and nature reserves under so that we can grow more organic food – rather, environmental activists are more interested in winning campaigns and increasing funding than actually protecting bees or the environment.
  • The precautionary principle is the most flawed policy tool ever introduced (by the European Environment Agency) into the regulatory soup served in Brussels. I have often argued that the stench of precaution is enough to wipe out good, safe products. Faced with the illogic above, regulators still have a hard time finding reason to back-track and bring back a product that was actually not a problem. Why? Because the market has most often moved on. Lowe’s, a DIY (hardware) chain in the US, was recently forced by environmental campaigners to remove neonic garden products from their shelves. It is likely that they are going to introduce a neonic-free line of products to sell to petrified and confused consumers. That the new line won’t work as well, is more toxic to the environment and more harmful to bees is absolutely not important so long as they have a market edge against Home Depot. They are now campaigning against neonicotinoids in the US (for all the wrong reasons) and the NGOs have become their capitalist mercenaries. Look at bisphenol A (BPA). After years of bad activist science, EFSA recently announced that there is absolutely no threat to human health from BPA. Will the activists stop their campaigning? Will the adjective, “BPA-free”, become a marketing dinosaur? Will we reintroduce BPA once again into certain campaign-battered consumer products? Of course not! This is Brussels, a regulatory universe beyond facts or logic.

The Bubble or the Beltway?

Why does the Risk-Monger think that regulators in Brussels are more inclined to making stupid decisions (like the precautionary ban on neonicotinoids) than those in Washington? I had just spent a week in Washington discussing bees with journalists, farmers, scientists and regulators and I believe that having a democratic process does cut the stupid-index down a notch. Regulators in Brussels are not accountable for their decisions and are more prone to giving in to loud, slick NGO PR campaigns designed to create a perception of facts and influence. Environmentalists don’t play the dialogue or democracy game very well – they would rather not have the millions of farmers, consumers or scientists allowed to speak about their interests or concerns, but those people vote and regulators in Washington do pay attention to that.

Farmers are still listened to in Washington. In Brussels, their lobby is essentially one of a civil servant book-keeping process to make sure they get public funds when their crops inevitably fail due to the inadequate crop-protection tools that the Pesticides Directive is allowing them to use. The save-the-bees NGOs and their activist scientists, like Dave Goulson, can spread their juvenile understanding of farmers and no one in this town can call them out for their cosmopolitan arrogance and misinformation. They won’t dare try that nonsense in Washington.

This is a revelation to me. I had always thought that Plato’s Philosopher King approach (a non-democratic, “intellectocracy”) would make better decisions than the democratic voice of the masses (decisions aimed at the lowest common intellectual denominator). I had never anticipated that the infiltration of idealists and dreamers would make Brussels subject to a political class far below the lowest common intellectual denominator – one that operates against facts and for personal campaign gain. Not regulating according to a democratic model is one thing (and one that I could accept), but that Brussels is now regulating according to pixie dust rather than science, makes democratically legitimised institutions seem a whole lot more tolerable.

Finally, a promise for an EU impact assessment

That being said, the Risk-Monger is pleased to have learnt that there will be an impact assessment later this year on neonicotinoids, bees and farming (something they had forgotten to do when rushing through their precautionary ban in 2013). This will allow farmers to come forward and explain what they need and how neonicotinoids have been an essential solution to their risk management systems. This will give the non-activist scientists the chance to provide data on what the real stressors to bee health are. Bee-keepers will be able to share what they need to combat the Varroa mite – by far, the real threat to pollinators. And the environmental NGOs will get their minions to sign a couple million copy-pasted emails saying bees are nice things and pesticides are bad. I wonder who the Brussels bureaucrats in DG Santé will listen to.

From experience, my expectations are not high. I fear that parade of stupid will keep marching on!

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Comments

  1. The land grant universities have been doing research on the pollinator health issue for 3 to 4 years now and the data is not supporting what these hate groups are telling. I am so hoping that when the groups meet with Obama that common sense will prevail and that the real science will prevail. I am always amazed how the science is overlooked and people will believe what the tree huggers tell. It scares me that people who are so removed from agriculture (except their full plates) have so much influence on ag policy. I really wish that every producer in the world good shut down for 3 years and see what the rest of the world thought then. If food was scarce and expensive they may understand how good they have it and how producers care about the environment. Just a few thoughts.

    1. Thanks Randi – this is very frustrating for so many scientists. Environmental activists and their b-grade researchers are playing to win campaigns, not to establish facts or feed populations. Their campaigns are populist driven (not too many people want to defend pesticides and they have worked well to bruise the image of conventional farmers) and they know they can ignore counter-evidence by just playing the fear card. That regulators in the EU can base their decisions on pixie dust rather than evidence shows their irresponsibility. I suspect Obama will release a document to please his constituents, but I am confident that farmers in the US still have a voice – I was heartened from my meetings with farmers groups in Washington and feel reassured that this parade of stupid won’t cross the Atlantic.

    1. Thank you for your comment Jason. I was in Washington with a group of bee researchers last month when this article was published and they were trying not to be too impolite on the flawed methodology – for example how the paper observed in their larger OSR test fields, more wild bees were attracted. Obviously as that paper was released a month ago there are no peer reviewed responses published. There are industry reactions to the methodology, but I assume you are not interested in that.
      I would like to send you towards a paper recently published in a Nature Outlook issue on bees, in a rather journalistic style, that highlights just how hard it is to test wild bees, how many species there actually are, what they feed on and where they go (I was surprised to learn that there are more wild bee species in urban areas than in rural farmland in the UK) – see: Wild Bees, Lone Rangers at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v521/n7552_supp/full/521S62a.html.
      In the EASAC publication cited above, they are basing their conclusions of wild bee and bumblebee losses on conjecture. On page 22, they state:

      Bumble bees are thus likely to be more sensitive and solitary bees much more vulnerable to the same levels of exposure. Some studies have already demonstrated this sensitivity with bumble bees (see, for example, Whitehorn et al., 2012), and field trials to test these differences further with both bumble and solitary bees have been performed and results are expected soon.

      Logically if there are so many disagreements on field test methodology for honeybees when you have means to monitor hive activity, we should not expect clear agreement on solitary bee field trial methodology.

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