Eurocrats with a bee in their bonnets

It seems the bee has replaced the whale and the polar bear as the friendly face of green authoritarianism.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

On Monday, an EU committee voted on a proposal by the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, for a partial ban on a widely used class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. The vote was inconclusive, with no ‘qualified majority’ either for or against. In to such situations, the commission is able simply to impose its plan. The whole affair is a case study in incomplete science being used to impose precautionary policy with green NGOs acting as lobbyists and cheerleaders.

The new ban is a response to a genuine problem: the decline in populations of pollinating insects, particularly bees. A particularly graphic idea in relation to this is ‘colony collapse disorder’, where hives may lose most or all of their bees. At present, bees are widely used to pollinate many food crops, though not all such crops require pollination to produce food. This has led to claims that the threat to bees is, in turn, a major threat to food production, despite the fact that our most important food crops do not require pollination and other crops can be pollinated simply by using more bees or by other means entirely (though this bumps up the cost, of course).

The decline of bees has been going on for a long time, with causes including land-use changes – prompting the loss of plants that bees feed on – and the spread of a mite called Varroa destructor, which causes disease in honeybees. However, in recent years the finger of blame has also been pointed at neonicotinoid pesticides. These were regarded as a step forward for pesticides when introduced 20 years ago. First, they are systemic pesticides, that spread throughout the plant, providing more complete and preemptive protection. This also means they are not normally sprayed on to the surface of plants, which in theory keeps them away from beneficial insects. Secondly, while these nicotine-like substances are deadly to insects, they have low toxicity to mammals and humans, which reduces the negative impacts on other wildlife and human health compared with older pesticides.

Used in the way manufacturers suggest, bees should not be exposed to anything like a lethal dose of these pesticides. But concern has grown about whether lower doses may be harmful. For example, one suggestion is that with small doses received from nectar, bees may lose the ability to find their way back to their hives. So there is a prima facie case against these products in relation to bees that warrants full investigation. Even if neonicotinoids are shown to be a problem, this may be because of the way they are applied rather than the substances themselves, as a study suggested last year.

On the other hand, there is other evidence to suggest that neonicotinoids, in real-world conditions, have only a limited effect, if any, on bee numbers. For example, in Australia, neonicotinoids are widely used in agriculture. But Australia is not afflicted by the Varroa mite, and honeybee numbers seem to be healthy. A ban in France on some uses of neonicotinoids was put in place in 2003, without any obvious improvement in the population of bees there. Equally, in high-altitude areas of Switzerland, where such pesticides are not used, there are still problems with bee populations.

That this remains a contentious area of science is illustrated by a survey of researcher opinion published yesterday by the Science Media Centre. Rather than depriving European farmers of a valuable product to protect their crops, it would have been better to fund further, more complete research.

As one of the researchers surveyed, Professor Lin Field of Rothamsted Research, says: ‘Rather than an immediate ban, we should take this opportunity to further study and de-convolute the many possible causes of colony collapse and aberrant foraging behaviour. This will then help us to balance the risks and benefits for crop protection, crop pollination, ecosystem function and our health appropriately.’

The ban will have its own downsides. What replaces neonicotinoids, and, if used instead of neonicotinoids, what effect will those older pesticides have? At a time of relatively high food prices, these recent developments could may well increase farmers’ costs further. The ‘cure’ could be worse than the ‘disease’. Dr Adam Vanbergen of the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology told the BBC: ‘If you ban the neonicotinoids, farmers are going to be compelled to use products that are much more harmful to the environment and to a wider range of animals. There is a tender balance between protecting the environment and securing the food supply. I still err on the side of not banning, to be honest.’

The fact that the European Commission can impose such a ban should worry anyone interested in democracy. While votes by national representatives are hardly the high point of democracy themselves, at least those serving in national committees are answerable to elected, national governments. The Commission has no such legitimacy. If there is no majority in favour of it, according to the EU’s own rules, why should such a ban be continent-wide? There is clearly already room for national governments to introduce restrictions if they decide they are necessary. A decision by the UK to keep neonicotinoids does not affect French or Italian farmers.

It is hard not to see the hand of Brussels lobbying in all this. It seems that anyone with a bee in their bonnet, on the environment or anything else, can just bypass voters and persuade the Eurocrats instead. Environmentalist NGOs, who swarm round the EU like flies on a turd, have seized upon the plight of the bee as a cause célèbre, both to promote their pro-organic, chemophobic view of agriculture and to rattle the tin to raise more cash. Friends of the Earth, for example, has been using our stripey little friends to persuade those easily suckered by childish imagery to cough up and get involved to ‘make 2013 the Year of the Bee’. Who needs to save the whale or the polar bear when you can save the bee?

This ban is scientifically and democratically dubious, built on scare stories about the threat to bees themselves and, in turn, on food production. Never mind that there is plenty of scientific and political opposition to the ban, the European Commission will plough on regardless. If only we could tell our unelected commissioners to buzz off.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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