The Risk-Monger

The precautionary principle is pure poison to evidence-based policymaking and the recent scientific findings on bees (colony collapse disorder or CCD) have highlighted how irresponsible environmental activists who try to use precaution have been and why the EU should impose rules on how this environmentally disastrous principle should be used.

A University of Sheffield team, led by Dr Stephen Martin, provided very strong evidence in an article published in Science that the mysterious colony collapse disorder is due to a virus spread by the Varroa mite. This is an extremely important finding that will begin the research in how to contain the spread of the virus and restore bee colonies to good health and Dr Martin’s team should be commended for their work.

What has put the “deformed wing virus” bee in the Risk-Monger’s bonnet then? The threat to bees (and hence the survival of mankind) has been the source of much debate over the last decade with many environmental NGOs using the cataclysmic risks as an opportunity to demand immediate implementation of the precautionary principle. Precaution for what? Well, for everything the environmental NGOs have been campaigning against.

  • Environmentalists like PAN and Green MEPs like Hiltrud Beyer have regularly been calling for the immediate ban of pesticides as an emergency precautionary measure to save the bees (and mankind). It did not matter that pesticides have become safer and highly regulated over the last six decades, activist researchers even speculated on compounds that were likely to be responsible for CCD. What would have happened to world food security if we had immediately cut 40% of global food production on a hunch?
  • It was obvious that the reason the bees were dying in large numbers, the precaution aficionados at the European Environment Agency told us, was due to the loss of biodiversity. As an agency charged with providing the European Union with evidence, they provided no information but rather innuendo in their European Environment State and Outlook Report 2010 (cunningly putting a big photo of a bee on the cover of their Nature and Biodiversity chapter). There was no need for evidence, just a call for precaution.
  • Other obvious, albeit anecdotally-based claims for the causes for colony collapse disorder (and therefore reasons for immediate precautionary measures), include the use of GMOs, intensive monoculture farming, global warming (then again, that is affecting everything) and electro-magnetic fields. No evidence was provided for any of these claims; none needed when you have a great policy tool like precaution.

The tragic situation for the bees provided environmental activists with a sort of precautionary “whack a mole”. So long as we did not know the real cause with any certainty, we were open to speculate and fit any on-going campaigns on the bee bandwagon (look for similarities with opportunistic claims made within the scientific uncertainties surrounding endocrine disrupters or climate change).

So we can conclude that all of these activist demands for immediate precautionary action to save the bees would now be recognised to be wrong, unfounded and opportunistic, and the credibility of those making such groundless claims would suffer. Well, … no! The beauty of precaution, as I have argued in an earlier blog, is that you are never wrong (you are just not right, but nevertheless, caring and concerned for our safety). Take for example how the BBC reported on the Sheffield study. Not once did they mention any of the previous, now clearly erroneous claims that were levelled by the activists. All misuse of science for political activism has quickly been forgotten. Being wrong doesn’t matter when you call for precaution, and if you are successful in getting precautionary measures through, we will rarely know that you were wrong (readers of the Risk-Monger know how he would like the perpetrators of the DDT ban to be hauled into The Hague and charged with crimes against humanity!). The BBC has already forgotten the environmentalist manipulations (it is like it never happened), but the Risk-Monger will try to remind people that opportunism does not count as evidence.

Disturbingly, a University of Guelph study back in 2009 identified Varroa mites as the source of at least 85% of colony collapse disorders. Why was this science ignored back in 2009? While there were no political activists campaigning against the Varroa mites, there were indeed many NGOs campaigning on climate change, against GMOs, pesticides, farming practices … where precaution proved the perfect tool to use when mixed with their anecdotal postulations about possible findings. After the Sheffield study, will these activists now apologise for misusing a serious scientific problem for their own political agenda? Of course not – they will likely ignore the science and continue to use the bee CCD issue in their campaigns (still demanding for the immediate implementation of the precautionary principle). It is too rich and too emotional an issues to shelve just because the science is now quite convincing. Why is the Risk-Monger so cynical towards the NGO activists? Can’t he assume that they might have some integrity?

Well, … no! Take this weekend’s Greenpeace flash campaign against Shell. Greenpeace activists were involved and are leading the viral spread of an alleged Shell Arctic PR launch that went horribly wrong. It seems the entire event was staged, completely fake and Greenpeace was part of it. Discussions led by the Risk-Monger and others on the Greenpeace Facebook page have tried to get them to own up to spreading false information, and the response is that even if the video was a lie, it is still important to use it as a chance to talk about Shell’s activities in the Arctic (they even posted a blog praising the Yes Men). These environmental activists show they have no respect for facts, evidence or honesty. They should not be allowed at the policy table until they start to show integrity. I am afraid the emerging facts on the Varroa mites connection to bee CCD will not change the activist ambitions when scientific evidence and honesty were never high on their agenda.

The precautionary principle should not be used as an anecdotal policy tool – its stinger is arbitrary and destructive to scientific integrity. The next time an opportunistic activist screams the word “precaution”, please remember the bees.

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  1. This just reminds me of the deaths in Germany due to soybean sprouts made in an organic biological farm.
    The authorities first destroyed the Spanish vegetable and fruit production market and only weeks later did they find the source of the problem. Precaution of course.
    Fact is, organic biological produce has like a halo of pureness around it that makes it unsuspectable, yes but at the price of lifes.
    The news on the source was not advertised much, if not at all, making sure the word death and organic where not mixed in the same bag.
    But Spanish produce was banned and destroyed and millions of euros were lost.

    1. Thank you Patrick – last year, in several blogs, I was fairly vocal and quite irate at how the German government’s display of care and concern came at the cost of responsibility. In the case of the bees, it is not the authorities that are mismanaging precaution (not yet), but the NGOs that are abusing and manipulating this tool. Here it is the sweet smell of the NGO’s “care and concern” that are covering up the stink of their opportunism. And as long as they keep getting away with it …

  2. David, Hiltrud Breyer is no longer an mep ( Are there instances of the use of the precautionary principle you have come across that make sense. For me, on air quality regulation, my then boss, anita pollack mep, supported measuring PM2.5 air particulates, based on several studies. Later evidence identified PM2.5 as a health risk.

    1. Thanks Aaron – I used Breyer as a celebrated example of precaution abuse. As Rapporteur of the 91/414 revision of the Pesticides Directive, she regularly hissed and demanded immediate banning of most pesticides (if not about bees, then endocrine disruptors), denied the need for an impact assessment (we need to act, we don’t need more science …) and use the precautionary principle as a negotiating threat to beat her opponents with. Precaution makes sense when there is a sound basis – PM 2.5 makes sense based on studies and is an example of sound policymaking if all elements are taken into consideration. Note that this would not be precaution, but rather ALARA (reducing risk exposure to As Low As Reasonably Achievable – the discussion is not about banning something but rather on what would be reasonably achievable). This is risk management – what I strongly supported in a blog and several policy debates last year as a viable alternative to precaution, which is uncertainty management and not at all a risk management tool (precaution does not consider benefits in light of managing away any uncertainty).

  3. You’re angry against environmental NGOs, fair enough; a quick browsing of your writings provides ample evidence for that. But this animosity makes you take the opposite side, which is no more helpful to bees than an excessive use of the precautionary principle: the CCD syndrom is also linked to a specific class of pesticides, the neonicotinoids.
    By definition, a syndrom cannot be linked to one factor only. Bees have multiple enemies and we must fight against all of them, including the chemicals industry.

    1. The idea of the Risk-Monger is to argue against those who manipulate evidence for political, economic or ideological purposes – what I call the sin of commonality – trying to stifle debate and discussion assuming that we all agree on something. A nice communications trick – rather bad for sound policy-making. If you look closely you see me equally attacking industry (several very critical blogs against BP and also against exuberent green-washing by companies like GE and IBM for the smart grid opportunities). I have also been critical to the European Commission with at least two blogs directed at the commonality circus going on in DG Sanco. My last blog looked at the ridiculous situation going on in the UN, let alone countless blogs at the unacceptable situation in the IPCC. Yes, environmentalists also take shortcuts on evidence due, at times, to their exuberence, and I consider them equally as fair game. I am sorry if you feel they have been unfairly persecuted, but my objective is to ensure that people think before they act or speak, and as I have no affiliations, I feel the role of a Brussels-based Socratic gadfly can make a contribution, however small, to debates.
      About the neonicotinoids, I am aware of this argument as it has been widely campaigned by groups like PAN, as well as the claims against GMOs, climate changes, monocultures, EMFs … and as you focused on this one, I must say it puzzles me. Neonicotinoids replaced much more toxic insecticides which did not seem to affect the bees in a similar fashion (sorry, but I see low dose arguments as political posturing of the worst kind, eg, “We just don’t know, therefore precaution!!!!”). France banned or restricted neonicotinioids in the 1990s because of suspected affects on bees and there seems to have been no resolution of CCD in France (Slovenia recognised the futility of their 2003 “precautionary OOPS” and had the courage to admit their mistake). As I said, I don’t expect the facts revealed from a comprehensive study to interrupt campaigns of interest groups – read my blog entitled: Do Facts Matter? You can anticipate my “lamentation”.

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