Sunday, February 26, 2017

Matt Ridley: The scandal behind the ban on neonicotinoids


To those who have engaged with environmental activists in recent years, the concept of fake news is old hat. From Greenpeace’s hundred-fold exaggeration of the oil in the Brent Spar oil platform in 1995 to Friends of the Earth’s slap-down by Britain’s Advertising Standards Agency over fracking untruths in 2017, we have grown used to being told “alternative facts” that later turn out to be wrong by those with green axes to grind. 

The latest episode of environmental activists playing fast and loose with the facts, however, may be their undoing.

A pesticides ban in Europe could soon be overturned on the grounds that it was based on unreliable data. Meanwhile, revelations that one of the scientists behind the ban was also involved with a nongovernmental organization that campaigns against pesticides continue to undermine the ban’s integrity.

Two European chemical companies, Bayer and Syngenta , appeared before the European Court of Justice this week to argue that the European Union should revoke a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides. “Neonics,” as these sprays are known, were introduced in the 1990s as a safer, greener alternative.

One of the advantages of neonics is that they can be used as a seed “dressing,” so that crop plants are protected from birth and need less or no spraying later. They only affect those insects that eat the crop, not innocent bystanders.

Though green activist groups claim neonics devastate bee populations, there remains much debate over how much neonic residue gets into the pollen that bees consume. But the fact remains that there has been no “bee-pocalypse.” In Europe and North America, honeybee numbers are higher today than they were two decades ago when neonics were first introduced.

As for wild bees, again the decline before 1990 ceased or reversed around the time neonics were introduced:

An extract: "We found that extensive species richness loss and biotic homogenisation occurred before 1990, whereas these negative trends became substantially less accentuated during recent decades, being partially reversed for certain taxa (e.g. bees in Great Britain and Netherlands)."

A 2015 study in Nature found that only a tiny fraction of wild-bee species pollinate crops. These bees, which come into the most-direct contact with neonics, are thriving:

"Here we show that, while the contribution of wild bees to crop production is significant, service delivery is restricted to a limited subset of all known bee species. Across crops, years and biogeographical regions, crop-visiting wild bee communities are dominated by a small number of common species, and threatened species are rarely observed on crops."

The real danger lurks elsewhere. The French Ministry of Agriculture recently concluded that diseases (especially the varroa mite), bad beekeeping and famine are the main causes of bee mortality. Pesticides were responsible for only about 4% of mortality, and this includes organic pesticides and pesticides used in the hives by beekeepers to control for varroa mite infestations. France’s final court of appeals in civil and criminal matters would agree. In a ruling last month, the Court of Cassation found that no causal connection has been established between the neonic Imidacloprid and bee mortality.

Such findings are in stark contrast to the recommendations in the draft Bee Guidance Document (BGD), a paper prepared by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the scientific basis of the 2013 neonic ban. But the BGD’s methodology also raises many questions. It ruled out large-scale field studies and forced regulators to rely on lab studies mostly using unrealistically high doses of neonics. Acceptable field studies had to demonstrate with 95% statistical confidence that a neonic would have no more than a 7% effect on the number of bees within a hive, even though bee numbers can fluctuate by twice as much just from cold weather. Field studies were also required to cover 448 square kilometers to meet the BGD’s conditions. Each test field had to be 2 kilometers from every other test field, other crops, orchards and even wildflowers.

No one has figured out how to meet these specifications. Meanwhile, some 18 major field studies and nine review articles published over the past 10 years have overwhelmingly showed that under realistic conditions, neonics have no effect on bees at the hive level.
It’s as if the EFSA’s standard of evidence was purposely set so high as to preclude evidence of neonic safety.

David Zaruk, an investigative journalist who blogs as the Risk Monger, may have discovered how this happened. He noticed that although the EFSA working group that prepared the BGD had removed all scientists affiliated with industry-funded research during the preparatory work, it retained several activists among its five final members. One of them was GĂ©rard Arnold, at the time also listed as the scientific coordinator at Apimondia, a beekeeper lobbying group.

When Mr. Zaruk asked the EFSA about this, he writes that the head of EFSA’s legal department agreed that if Mr. Arnold had been working with Apimondia at the same time, this would have been a serious breach of ethics. But Mr. Arnold had assured them that he was not, so the EFSA was willing to overlook an accusation that he was chairing an antipesticide working group for an NGO.

What this doesn’t explain, however, is why, after Mr. Zaruk started making his inquiries, every reference to Mr. Arnold’s work with Apimondia during his EFSA years started disappearing from the internet. When I asked Mr. Arnold about this, he said his work with Apimondia had ended before he started working with EFSA and the Apimondia website had simply been out of date. But given Mr. Arnold’s known antipesticide activism, there was still at best a conflict of interest.

Brussels entrusted a known antipesticide activist with the task of preparing what was supposed to be an objective report on the testing procedures of pesticides. Instead, the EFSA working group, which included Mr. Arnold, resulted in a ban that contradicts scientific evidence and has devastated European farmers. Growers of oilseed rape have had to cut back on their plantings and turned to spraying with older, less safe pyrethroid insecticides, which can be especially harmful to aquatic invertebrates if they get into water courses. This winter 8.3% of the total British oilseed rape crop has been lost, with farmers blaming “savage flea beetle damage”. The total cost of the neonic ban has been estimated at some €900 million ($954.1 million) a year for oilseed rape alone. It would seem incumbent on the EFSA to at least perform a thorough investigation.

The EFSA has so far resisted calls for a review and re-examination of the deeply flawed process that resulted in the ban, but the exclusion of evidence under the BGD is one of the central arguments presented to the European Court of Justice this week. The judges there may well take a more objective and science-based view.

The neonic ban is a paradigmatic case of the problems caused by Brussels’s adoption of an overzealous interpretation of the precautionary principle at the behest of environmental activists. The ban has hurt, not helped, the environment. 

Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com

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