Politics, pesticides and science

In March 2013 the The Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) released a report entitled ‘Effects of neonicotinoid seed treatments on bumble bee colonies under field conditions’. This report was released by FERA in a rushed manner as a knee-jerk response to the growing implication that there could be an EU ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, it did go to vote on 29th Arpil 2013. In particular, this report was aiming to respond to the study by Whitehorn et al. (2012) which indicated that in the laboratory, under rigorous field-realistic levels, bumblebee colonies were greatly affected by neonicotinoids.

The report was to assess the hypothesis that “exposure of bumble bee colonies placed in the vicinity of crops treated with neonicotinoids had no major effect on the health of the colonies” (FERA 2013, p.2) and it concluded that there was not enough evidence to suggest that neonicotinoid pesticides were decreasing colony mass or the number of new bumblebee queens produced by a colony. This report seemed like a reprieve for the Coalition government, and Owen Paterson (Environment secretary) in particular, who had fastidiously maintained the position that these chemicals are not harmful and it would be inadvisable to ban them. What came out over the following two months, however, was that the report was riddled with flaws, oversights, omissions, and serious methodological problems.

On the 14th June 2013 the report was amended in order to “to make clear to the reader the background as to why the report was commissioned and the parameters under which the study was designed and delivered” (Ibid, p.1). These amendments make for frightening reading. It ascertains that the study was not designed “as a definitive statistically robust study” but was rather a “a rapid response to concerns about the effects of neonicotinoids on bumble bee colonies raised by Whitehorn et al (2012)” (Ibid). The study “was established in 1 month” (Ibid), essentially the entire methodology and plan was rushed through.

The study aimed to assess whether bumblebees placed at 3 different sites which had differing levels of neonicotinoids around them, were affected differently over a period of 6-7 weeks. The bees were, however, put on the sites at different times as the plants were flowering at different times,  “as a consequence of this there were systematic between-site differences in the size and possibly other aspects of the colonies…In analysing the data attempts were made to control statistically for these baseline differences” (Ibid, p.2). Now, the first lesson of science is to maintain the same situation for a control sample and a test sample, except for the variable you are testing (in this case, levels of neonicotinoids). In this study however, the control sample was of a different size and age, in a different location and subject to entirely different environmental conditions. To attempt to redress these issues by using statistical methods seems at best stupid and at worst dangerous to me, especially considering this is an area of research where there is no previous field experiment data to compare to.

The study sourced its bumblebee colonies from commercial providers. It does not say if they were screened for infections even though it is well known that commercial bumblebees often carry one to multiple diseases.

There are several other issues with the study but I do not have the fortitude to go into them right now.

A final point however; in the ‘Executive Summary’ of the report it is stated that neonicotinoid pesticides could not be shown to affect bumblebee colonies negatively and that “the absence of these effects is reassuring but not definitive” (Ibid, p.3). Does it not appear that using the word ‘reassuring’ carries with it a weight bias? Of desire for certain results? It suggests to me that the authors of this report/study wanted the neonicotinoids to be shown to be non-damaging to the bees.

Now, suffice to say that when I read this report properly the other day I was aghast. However, this piece is not merely a beacon of poor science on behalf of the government, put it into context. It was released just before the EU were going to a vote on whether or not to ban these pesticides, these products. Products which make their creators, namely Bayer and Syngenta, huge amounts of profits yearly.

In April, just after this study had been released and before the EU Commission went to vote, Owen Paterson wrote to Syngenta corporation personally to let them know of the British government’s intentions to continue to fight the EU ban saying that they were extremely “disappointed that the Commission decided to propose significant restrictions on neonicotinoids” (Paterson 2013).

There are two facets that can be clearly fused now:

1. the rushed, botched field study trying desperately to prove that neonicotinoids are not harmful to bees delivered by the government.

2. the Environmental secretary’s letter pandering to the heads of the main producers of neonicotinoids that the British government is very much fighting for the interests of their products.

I my eyes these two threads illustrate a clear collusion between the government and corporate interests to protect a chemical product that has not been shown to be safe to organisms in our ecosystem. It is shocking, to me, that corporate interests can be so blatantly and translucently put ahead of basic caution towards our environment.

The jury is still very much out on how damaging neonicotinoids are, it is not known. What is known and clear to all is that the government does not have any intention of finding any real evidence before it allows itself to get into the back pockets of these corporate interests.  2.2 million people signed a petition  supporting the ban of these chemicals until more was known about their effects (Carrington 2013), and given the blatant disregard of people’s opinions and of our ecosystem it behoves us to maintain a close eye on what is being done in the agricultural fields of our countryside.

References and further reading:

– Carrington, D. (2013). EU proposes to ban insecticides linkied to bee decline, Guardian online, 31st January 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jan/31/eu-proposes-ban-insecticides-bee 

– DEFRA: website https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-environment-food-rural-affairs/about#corporate-reports

-FERA (2013). Effects of neonicotinoid seed treatments on bumble bee colonies under field conditions. Online:  http://www.fera.defra.gov.uk/scienceResearch/scienceCapabilities/chemicalsEnvironment/documents/defraBumbleBeeReportPS2371V4a.pdf

– Paterson, O. (2013). Letter to Syngenta. Online: http://www.scribd.com/doc/138461467/Owen-Paterson-s-letter-to-Syngenta-on-insecticides-ban-proposals

– Whitehorn et al. (2012). Neonicotinoid Pesticide Reduces Bumble Bee Colony Growth and Queen Production. Online: http://211.144.68.84:9998/91keshi/Public/File/41/336-6079/pdf/351.full.pdf (very short and well worth the read)

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