To Bee or not to Bee: Europe does the right thing on pesticides

bee in flightBees are in big trouble. For nearly a decade, bees in the US, Europe and elsewhere have been dying off at an alarming rate.

If you like eating, this is a big deal. That’s because bees and other insects are responsible for pollinating most of our food, from nuts to tree fruit to beans to squash and a whole lot more. In fact, 84% of the crop species grown in Europe rely on insect pollinators, with a similar percentage in the US. Globally, 87 of the 124 crops used directly for human consumption are dependent on bees and their other winged buddies.

This week, the European Commission voted to enact a two-year moratorium on the world’s most widely-used class of pesticides after a growing body of scientific evidence pointed toward their complicity in widespread bee die-offs. And while this will buy bees some much-needed breathing room in Europe, American bees are unlikely to get similar help any time soon.

What’s the buzz?

The bee die-offs seem to be caused by a number of factors, including disease, parasites and habitat loss. But in the past couple of years, scientific research increasingly suggests that neonicotinoid pesticides are contributing to the problem, as well.

These pesticides are chemically similar to the nicotine in tobacco and work by attacking insects’ nervous systems. One of the most common uses is as a seed coating, which is taken up and infused through the whole plant as it grows. That makes it a very effective weapon against pests.

However a growing number of studies are finding that neonicotinoids not only kill bees outright, they also weaken them so they become more susceptible to parasites and diseases. Studies published over the past year in the USthe UK and France have shown that, even in less-than-lethal doses, these chemicals can also cause disruption of bees’ natural behavior, such as failure to produce queens, or wandering off and not returning to the hive.

This led researchers at the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) to conclude early this year that neonicotinoids present an “unacceptable risk” to bees and other insect pollinators. They recommended a two-year temporary time-out to to see for sure if these chemicals are in fact part of what’s killing off the bees.

Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, the biggest manufactures of nicotinoid pesticides, have been working overtime to try to discredit these and other studies that implicate their lucrative products. For instance, they dismiss recent laboratory research by saying only field testing can recreate the real-world conditions under which bees and neonics interact.

But a recent attempt at a field study by the UK’s Food and Environment Research Agency of neonic impact on bumblebees failed because they couldn’t find an uncontaminated site for a control group. It seems that in all the testing sites – including one in a field growing seed untreated by neonics – there was too much ambient neonic contamination to get a clear contrast. But even then, their compromised data showed neonicotinoids had a negative impact on test hives.

Given the cumulative concerns the new research raises  – and seeing that the rise of acute problems with bee die-offs and so-called “colony collapse disorder” began not long after neonicotinoid pesticides came into widespread use –  doesn’t it seem prudent to be cautious and look at the possible connection before it’s too late?

Don’t look at us

The chemical industry doesn’t agree. They’re understandably alarmed at having these products, which have earned them billions, even temporarily sidelined. They insist their products – when used as directed – have no impact on bees. Syngenta boss Martin Walker has been doing the rounds in the press, claiming that the EU moratorium would “not save a single hive”.

The simple fact is that the industry has no scientific basis for making such a broad claim; there is no study that proves nicotinoids are safe for bees. The industry insists its studies find no link between bee deaths and neonicotinoids, but they haven’t really looked for evidence of pesticide damage to bees. Industry-funded research has focused on other possible sources of problems, such as parasites, funguses and diseases.

In fact, the industry data submitted to licensing authorities in both the EU and the US has been criticised on both continents for ignoring key questions about the chemicals’ safety, especially sub-lethal impacts. Meanwhile, independent research is showing that these widely-used chemicals can have deadly impacts on pollinating insects.

Saving grace

Chemical regulations in the EU are guided by what’s called the “precautionary principle.” That simply means that, with the stakes this high, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Under EC Regulation 1107/2009,  industries that profit from a chemical have a legal responsibility to prove that it won’t damage people, animals or the environment before they can use it. As the mounting science shows, the chemical industry has not met that burden of proof. And until they can, it seems unwise to allow neonicotinoids to endanger the bees on which we depend for our food.

In the US, there’s no such legal deference to the precautionary principle. And while the Environmental Protection Agency is being sued by a collection of green groups and beekeepers for certifying neonicotinoid pesticides for use without adequate testing, American regulators show little enthusiasm for joining the EU moratorium.

Hopefully, the European action will allow time for the gaps in the data identified by EFSA to be filled with non-industry-funded research that can establish once and for all if neonics are indeed a significant factor in the disappearance of the bees.

Kudos to the European Commission for not knuckling under to the industry’s fierce campaign of lobbying and intimidation, and for giving bees the benefit of the doubt.

Because with our food supply riding on it, we can’t afford to get this wrong.

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