The European Union’s addiction to the precautionary principle — which says in effect that the risks of new technologies must be measured against perfection, not against the risks of existing technologies — has caused many perverse policy decisions. It may now have produced a result that has proved so utterly foot-shooting, so swiftly, that even Eurocrats might notice the environmental disaster they have created.
All across southeast Britain this autumn, crops of oilseed rape are dying because of infestation by flea beetles. The direct cause of the problem is the two-year ban on pesticides called neonicotinoids brought in by the EU over British objections at the tail end of last year.
The ban was justified on the precautionary ground that neonics might be causing the mass decline of bees. There is, by the way, no mass decline of bees, as I shall explain.
Neonics are primarily used as a seed dressing: seeds are soaked in the chemical so that the plant grows up protected from pests and — crucially — often does not need to be sprayed. The beauty of this is that it targets pests, such as flea beetles, that eat the plant, but not the bystanders such as other insects. In the laboratory, bees exposed to high doses of neonics do indeed die or become confused. So they should — that’s what the word “insecticide” means.
Yet large-scale field studies and real world evidence consistently demonstrate that rape pollen does not contain a high enough dose to have an impact on bee colonies. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report on the subject concluded that lab studies used to justify the EU ban severely overdosed their bees and that bees are not affected by neonics under normal conditions. Australian regulators claim that neonics have actually improved the environment for bees by replacing older pesticides. And in the US, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have so far resisted calls to ban neonics for much the same reason.
Even though there was literally no good science linking neonics to bee deaths in fields, they were banned anyway for use on flowering crops in Europe. Friends of the Earth, which lobbied for the ban, opined that this would make no difference to farmers. Dave Goulson, a bee activist and author of a fine book on bumblebees called A Sting in the Tale, was widely quoted as saying that farmers were wasting their money on neonics anyway; though how he knew this was not clear. Presumably he thinks farmers are stupid.
Well, the environmentalists were wrong. The loss of the rape cropthis autumn is approaching 50 per cent in Hampshire and not much less in other parts of the country. Farmers in Germany, the EU’s largest producer of rape, are also reporting widespread damage. Since rape is one of the main flower crops, providing huge amounts of pollen and nectar for bees, this will hurt wild bee numbers as well as farmers’ livelihoods.
Farmers are instead reluctantly using pyrethroids. These older insecticides are less effective against pests (flea beetles are becoming resistant to them), more dangerous to other insects, especially threatening to aquatic invertebrates when they seep into streams and less safe to handle. So the result will be more insect deaths. In a panic, Defra has just announced that it will allow the use of two neonics, but — and here you have to laugh or you would cry — both are sprayed on the flowering crop, rather than used to dress seed! So they definitely can harm bees.
The ban was brought in entirely to placate green lobby groups, which have privileged and direct access to unelected European officials in policymaking. They hotted up their followers, using the misleading lab studies, to bombard politicians on the topic. The former health commissioner, Tonio Borg, felt so inundated by emails that he had to do something. Owen Paterson, as environment secretary, received 85,000 emails to his parliamentary address alone. Yet he warned colleagues that a ban was unjustified and would be counterproductive. He was right.
Back to bees. What decline? The number of honeybee hives in the world is at a record high. The number in Europe is higher than it was in the early 1990s when neonics were introduced. Hive mortality in Britain was unusually low in the year before the neonic ban. It’s a myth that honeybees are in dire straits.
That’s not to say beekeepers don’t have problems. There was a severe problem eight years ago caused by the mysterious colony collapse disorder — a phenomenon that has happened throughout history and seems once again to have disappeared. Greens tried to blame it on genetically modified crops, but it happened in countries with no GM crops. The battle against the varroa mite continues to be hard. A newly virulent strain of tobacco ringspot virus has made the rare leap from infecting plants to infecting bees.
What about wild bees, and bumblebees in particular? Having read again and again of the terrible decline of bumblebees, I set out to find some graphs or tables. I came away empty-handed. In Britain some species contracted their ranges and some expanded during the 20th century. The specialist species seem to have suffered while the generalists have thrived. But claims of a continuing fall in the abundance of bumblebees over the past 20 years seem to be entirely anecdotal.
As Dr Goulson recounts in his book, it’s hard to study bumblebee nests because so many get destroyed by badgers. The huge expansion of the badger population in recent years cannot have helped the populations of their favourite prey.
Full disclosure: I have a farm. My oilseed rape is looking all right this year, but the farmer is not happy at having to use pyrethroids and nor am I. The local beekeeper is hopping mad about the neonic ban, which he thinks has done more harm than good. And he’s genuinely worried about a new threat to honeybees from the small hive beetle, which is spreading in Italy, a major source of honeybees and queens for Britain. Currently there is free movement of potentially contaminated bees from Italy into the UK. In short, nobody’s taking any precautions about the real threats.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com. This article was first published the The Times.