The Risk-Monger

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?

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    1. Thanks C. I would love to have some evidence that they know what they are doing. In previous blogs, I highlighted all of the possible causes of CCD but that the scientists in different parts of the world studying bee colonies have tracked up to 85% of the cases to the Varroa mite virus (U of Guelph study). Sure there are other factors, like monoculture practices that have weakened bees to make them susceptible to this virus, but Geez Louise, shouldn’t the European Commission look at what the scientific community has published on CCD? I think they only asked EFSA for information on pesticides and bees, which is, well, not very intelligent. Sadly, I believe they are following the voice of the strongest lobbying group, which are the anti-pesticides groups and ignoring what scientists are saying. Bee population decline is very serious so we cannot afford another precautionary false positive. Getting it wrong with the bees and drastically cutting food production is deadly serious.

  1. Thank you for being a rare voice of reason. Bees, toys, birds…. children are often the focus of activists – these are chosen for because they are charged with emotion and nobody in their right mind could argue about applying the precautionary principle in these cases.

  2. Sorry but the varroa game has been played out, I have seen varroa mite infestations and a colony doesn’t disappear over night. If varoa is the problem it would have been proven already. Now you can say that about these neonicotinoids too but other than the flawed study presented by Bayer I haven’t seen anything that clears these chemicals. You can’t keep ignoring the high levels of Imidacloprid in the wax and honey in these hives. Continues exposure even at low levels will doom a colony. Are you telling us that Imidacloprid is harmless? Now if you work for monsento varroa is a good slogan.

    1. Thanks JP, but resorting to the evil Monsanto screech is tiresome, first because Monsanto does not produce neonicotinoids, and secondly, it reveals your quasi-eco-religious bias. A company is not a source of evil and I pity those suffering under such a narrative as these contradictions can overwhelm them. How is the Bayer study flawed? Because it was funded by Bayer? Careful about falling into such bias traps. My blog cited two scientific studies, published in reputable peer reviewed journals (neither funded by that evil Monsanto) which attributed up to 85% of CCD to the Varroa mite virus. You can pooh-pooh these studies if you wish (no CCD is immediate by the way) – I don’t see similar reputable evidence elsewhere and I was, from that, raising the alarm that the European Commission was not asking the right questions to their scientific advisers. Aren’t you worried that this is a mistake? Aren’t you worried that the consequences could stress global food security? Aren’t you worried that the previous, much more dangerous pesticides will come back into use once precaution rears its ugly face? I’m worried. I don’t work for Monsanto as you suggest (assumption you make is that only people paid by evil industry would say things against what you and those in your circles regard as common sense). I am an independent academic who finds that too many people make decisions based not on evidence but on things they (want to) believe in – and that worries me. I must apologise that I did not approve your other comment where you insulted another person who left a comment – you can insult me, fine, but there are certain rules of etiquette on how you should treat others visiting this blog.

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