Is the European Commission determined to dim the Enlightenment? I ask this because its behaviour in one specific instance goes so utterly with dogma and against evidence as to suggest that there is no longer even a pretence of respect for reason left in Brussels. It concerns bees.
In 2013, you may recall, the European Union banned some uses of neonicotinoid insecticides to save bees. The verdict on this policy has now come in, from the commission’s own Joint Research Centre (JRC), whose job is to provide independent scientific advice to support EU policy.
I have seen the commission’s internal report plus a PowerPoint summary that was shown privately to MEPs. Its conclusion is that the ban has been disastrously counterproductive, resulting in an increased use throughout the continent of more damaging pesticides, mainly pyrethroids, which are sprayed on rather than seed-treated (worse for non-pests) and are especially harmful to aquatic life. It finds the ban has had no benefit at all for bees.
In Britain, for example, the study finds that farmers have more than quadrupled the number of insecticide applications on oil-seed rape (from 0.7 to 3.4 per growing season), but pest pressure has increased. Meanwhile, recent studies have demonstrated that declines among wild bees are driven mostly by land use changes and have not increased since neonics were introduced in the 1990s. In fact, a 2015 study published in Nature Communications found that those wild bees most often found in agricultural areas — and probably most exposed to neonics — are “common” and “dominant”.
This makes sense because neonics are mostly used as seed dressings, absorbed into the plant from germination, rather than sprayed on a growing crop. This makes them more lethal to pests such as flea beetles that eat the crop but less dangerous to innocent bystanders, including bees that collect pollen and encounter lower doses. (To declare an interest, I own a farm, which does not grow oil-seed rape but does use neonics to protect wheat. My pride and joy is to have created a new 40-acre wildflower meadow, which is buzzing with bees all summer.)
What has the commission decided to do in response to the news that its policy has been bad for wildlife? Suppress the JRC report and double down, of course. It is refusing to release the report and has (I hear) told the JRC that the centre will have to publish it itself in a journal, which would take months and, crucially, delay publication until after an appeal against the ban at the European Court of Justice is concluded. The commission fears it will lose the case, so it has leaked to friendly reporters at The Guardian and Politico (via the activist Pesticide Action Network) that it intends to push forward with a full ban on neonics, except in greenhouses. The original 2013 ban was on seed treatments and other uses on bee-attractive crops. The leak suggests the full ban would be imposed in May — months before the final decision was to be made this autumn. It apparently wants to get the ban in place before the evidence that it is mistaken reaches the public. The leak was probably intended to keep pressure on the ECJ to rule in the commission’s favour.
Last week Bernhard Url, executive director of the European Food Safety Authority, appeared before the European parliament’s agriculture committee and said that “on the request of the European Commission”, the neonic policy would be based instead on the so-called Bee Guidance Document, even though he admitted this has not been adopted by EU countries. This was a bizarrely one-sided piece of politicised science, written mainly by activist researchers with a conflict of interest, that forces regulators to rely on lab studies often using absurdly high doses of the pesticides while ignoring the many large field studies that overwhelmingly concluded that neonics had no hive-level effect on bees. The document has been reputationally shredded in court.
As background, the German MEP Markus Pieper recently drafted a report for the European parliament budgetary committee calling for more transparency about what is sometimes called sock-puppet commission funding of NGOs. He was gobsmacked by the realisation that the commission pays wealthy green NGOs to lobby the parliament. “I can’t get my head around that sort of thing,” he said. Revealingly, Bart Staes, a Belgian Green MEP, responded with fury to his draft.
David Zaruk, a Brussels-based academic, has been documenting the extent to which Europe has become a playground for American green NGOs. European policy is based on hazard, not risk; it measures whether something can cause harm no matter what the exposure. That, along with an extreme interpretation of the precautionary principle (to consider the hazard, but not the benefit, of any innovation), makes it much easier to get things banned in Europe than in America, where lawyers put up a fight. Hence the way US activists now start their campaigns in Europe. Zaruk says: “If you can ban your target substances (glyphosate and certain neonicotinoids are the flavours of the month) in the influence-rich but lawyer-weak left-leaning European Commission, you then take that feather in your cap back to DC and try to build regulatory momentum.”
Perhaps the European Food Safety Agency should drop the pretence that its regulatory decisions are based on science and admit that EU regulations on the environment and health are political determinations driven by whoever can create the most pressure on bureaucrats and politicians, which is almost always these days anti-science NGOs with their vast and subsidised budgets. For those who would prefer we do without insecticides altogether: great idea, but we missed that bus 20 years ago when we turned our back on genetically modified crops. Insect-resistant GM cotton and maize have boomed elsewhere, but work on European crops largely ceased at the behest of the environmentalists.
It is tragic that this is happening in Europe, home of the Enlightenment, birthplace of the scientific method, where the human race began to climb out of its solitary, brutish and short-lived natural state. The fact that the commission is using a corrupt document and suppressing its own report showing that the ban has been a counterproductive failure — and that few in Brussels appear to give a damn — suggests that Brexit cannot come soon enough.
Post script - The following letter appeared in the Times the next day from a farmer:
Sir, Matt Ridley (“Europe’s age of unreason harms its wildlife”, Comment, Apr 17) perfectly sets out the facts surrounding the scandalous suppression of scientific evidence and the pandering to illogical non-governmental organisation pressures, by the EU, and how this has led to a ban on the use of the use of neonicotinoid seed dressings in oil seed rape crops. On my farm this environmentally friendly technique prevented the use of any insecticide sprays on any of the farm for more than ten years. This enabled me to encourage a wide spectrum of insects in crops and specially created habitat areas. It is a vital part of the food chain for a multitude of wildlife species.
The ban on the neonic seed dressing has now forced me to spray my rape crops, three times, with broad-spectrum insecticide, so as to achieve the same insect control. Sadly, we have undone ten years of environmentally friendly work. It is infuriating that this outcome should have been brought about by pressure and distorted information from so-called environmental groups and against the wishes and better judgment of bee keepers and farmers alike.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com.