I don’t like to go on, but this is an issue that simply refuses to lie down.
The plot so far.
You may remember that last month Britain and Germany abstained in a crucial EU vote which aimed to introduce restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides which have been widely implicated in killing bees and other pollinators. The proposal for a two year ban on the use of neonics on a range of specific crops, followed advice received by the European Food Safety Authority. (EFSA) The details are in my earlier blog “The Plight of the Humble Bee”.
The position of Britain’s Owen Paterson, the Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is that the science is inconclusive, the cost benefits analysis unclear and he intends to wait for DEFRA’s own trials before making any commitments.
That sounds reasonable.
|Prof. Ian Boyd|
However Paterson’s own chief scientific advisor, Prof. Ian Boyd of St Andrew’s University, admits that insufficient testing has been carried out to inform a proper cost benefit analysis. He agrees that in twenty years of use, it is unacceptable that that the manufacturers have not published clear data one way or the other. In fact the agrochemicals companies who make neonics have spent a fortune trying to prove that bee decline is primarily caused by the parasitic varroa mite. Meanwhile a growing number of peer reviewed research reports do support the view that neonicotinoids are a major factor in pollinator decline.
But is a cost-benefit analysis the appropriate way to go about this? How do you compare the financial benefit of biodiversity with the costs of implementing bans or restrictions? Actually, The Scottish Wildlife Trust, which supports the ban, does try to do just that. “Bees and other pollinating insects play a vital role in food production, worth approximately £43 million/yr to Scotland’s economy.” Obviously the figure for the entire UK would be several times greater than that. Although they also point out that “Most… plant communities rely on pollinating insects to reproduce and therefore spread. They also form a vital part of the food chain for other species such as birds, reptiles and amphibians. It follows that any insecticide that drastically reduces pollinator numbers will have effects beyond the agricultural sector and will ultimately affect the health and function of entire ecosystems.”
And what of DEFRA’s own trials, referred to by Mr. Paterson? On 27th February, Prof. Boyd gave evidence to the UK Environmental Audit Committee at which he admitted that their field trials had been seriously compromised by contamination from neonicotinoids and stated that at the control site of the bumblebee study, there were residues of neonicotinoids in pollen and nectar. In other words, bees range so widely to find nectar, that it was impossible to isolate a colony from the effects of these insecticides in order to conduct comparative trials. Surely that highlights the scale of the problem and reinforces the need for restrictions as the only way to assess the impact of neonics?
Currently, Prof Boyd conceded, there are no relevant trials in the pipeline which might influence DEFRA’s stance.
Are we sure neonicotinoids are to blame?
PAN, The Pesticide Action Network, which also unsurprisingly supports the ban, is very clear.
“Honey bee losses and population declines are certainly multi-factored, [their bold] involving reduction in adequate and good quality foraging sources, habitat degradation, reduced immune system defences to parasites and diseases, as well as increased exposure to neonicotinoids.” But doesn’t that make it all the more important that we do what we can to avoid needlessly adding to the problem.
Plus other circumstantial evidence also points towards neonics as a major culprit.
Colony Collapse Disorder was first noticed within two or three years of neonics being introduced.
Many species of wild bee and other pollinators have also seen catastrophic population declines over this period and they are not susceptible to varroa mites.
Italy introduced a ban on seed treatment of maize by three neonicotinoids in Autumn 2008. At the same time, the Italian Ministry of Agriculture set up APENET as the official monitoring agency for the trials. Since the ban no cases of hive collapse have been reported in the crucial Spring sowing period, compared with 185 cases in the preceding year. And Winter losses, always a factor in beekeeping, have also declined from 37.5% in 2008 to 15% in 2011, indicating an all round improvement in bee health.
So where are we now?
Mr Paterson’s problem is that his orders from the Prime Minister are unequivocal. “Don’t do anything that might damage economic growth.” Syngenta, one of the two major manufacturers of neonicotinoids, employs 2,000 people in the UK and Ireland. The other big manufacturer is Bayer and Germany joined the UK in abstaining in last month’s vote. Quite clearly, Paterson is putting short term economic expediency ahead of the long term health of the environment.
Fortunately, it is not too late for the Secretary of State to make amends. Next week, on April 29th, the EU Commissioner for Health & Consumer Policy, Tonio Borg, will take his case to the European Commission's Appeal Committee. He is entitled to do this since there was no overall majority of the 27member states. Mr. Borg deserves much credit for retaining his proposal intact and refusing to water it down in the face of intense lobbying by the chemicals industry.
Currently, Mr. Paterson is saying publicly that he will oppose the ban. But the temperature is rising on all sides.
On March 20th, immediately following his abstention, the minister complained of a cyber attack when he received over 80,000 emails demanding he take action to help bees.
On April 3rd, the influential, cross party Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee issued a report accusing DEFRA of ‘extraordinary complacency’ in this matter. The Department, it said, was relying on ‘fundamentally flawed’ studies and failing to uphold its own precautionary principle. It continued, "We believe that the weight of scientific evidence now warrants precautionary action."
Further influential reports published by Greenpeace (Bees in Decline) April 9th, and one by a team of 40 scientists from 27 institutions published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, on April 22 both demanded coordinated action to help bee populations.
Last week, as reported on this blog, the supermarket chain, Waitrose, introduced its own ban on produce from farms using neonicotinoids.
Yesterday, the Bulgarian Prime Minister, Marin Raykov, announced that his country would be changing its position to support the ban. Addressing a protest rally of beekeepers from all over Bulgaria he stated, “If we fail to pay attention to the problem with bees today, tomorrow we shall have nothing to eat,".
In the UK, Internet lobby group 38 Degrees will deliver a petition signed by 250,000 people to Owen Paterson tomorrow, and this will be followed on Friday by a march on Parliament jointly organized by Avaaz, Buglife, Environmental Justice Foundation, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Pesticide Action Network UK, RSPB, and the Soil Association.
Mr. Paterson’s record on green issues is not encouraging. Apart from failing to protect pollinators, he has personally lobbied to loosen restrictions on GMO use across the EU, he has made some very unfortunate comments about birds of prey, he is ploughing ahead with the badger cull in the face of mounting public and scientific opposition, and his department has completely fumbled the ball on implementing Marine Conservation Zones. Does he now want to go down as the man who destroyed Europe’s agricultural sector by killing all our bees?