Will we ‘bee’ smart about pesticide regulation?

On April 29, the European Commission failed for the second time to get the votes necessary to pass a proposed two-year ban on several innovative agricultural pesticides known as neonicotinoids (“neonics”). But immediately after reporting that a “qualified majority” of member states had not been reached, the Commission’s health and consumer affairs commissioner, Tonio Borg, announced that he would institute the ban administratively.

Such is the democratic process in the E.U., where the “precautionary principle” — ban or overregulate a product, process or activity, in the absence of complete assurance of safety — reigns.

In a rational world, environmentalists and bureaucrats would hail neonics — which were introduced during the 1990s and are used widely for production of winter wheat, oilseed rape, barley and sugar beet in the U.K., and for corn, sunflowers and vegetable crops across the E.U. — as the innovative breakthroughs that they are. Not only is their toxic profile dramatically lower than the pesticides they have replaced (including the organophosphates and pyrethroids environmentalists love to hate), but they are often applied as coatings on the seeds themselves, decreasing the amount of pesticide used by 10- to 20-fold or more.

The European Commission and the radical environmentalists who drive policy there claim neonics are responsible for declines in bee health, seizing on laboratory studies that dose the bees’ brains and nervous systems with large amounts of the chemicals and find, not surprisingly, that the bees become confused. As U.K. government scientists have pointed out, however, these studies were highly unrealistic because the bees were treated with much higher concentrations of neonics than occurs with real-world exposures. Their own field studies show no harmful effects. Those studies and others — such as a large-scale study on Canada’s canola fields — accord with voluminous real-world evidence that neonics are not the problem. (Canada is the world’s largest single producer of canola, a nutritionally rich crop for bees, with more than 50,000 producers and 16 million acres. Of note is that beekeepers eagerly take their bees to the canola fields to forage and, although neonicotinoids are widely used on canola in Canada, Canadian bee populations have been largely unaffected and produce approximately 50 million pounds of canola honey annually.)

It was the European Commission’s wholesale disregard of these inconvenient truths that caused the independent, Washington, D.C.-based Center for Regulatory Effectiveness to conclude that in the United States, similar regulations would fail to meet the requirements of the Data Quality Act (DQA) — the U.S. law that demands that certain scientific standards be met by federal regulatory agencies.

Another telling point is that by imposing the ban, the Commission has chosen to ignore findings of its own that were announced in 2010. A presentation by Alberto Laddomada, head of the Commission’s animal health unit, includes a chart of the “Main causes of colony mortality,” as reported by laboratories and scientists. “Chronical [sic] exposure to pesticides” is a barely visible bar, occupying the lowest position, with “diseases” and “Varroa” (the parasitic mite that is a genuine cause of bee problems) each accounting for 15 to 20 times as many reports. These two most frequent causes are followed by a number of other diseases and infections, as well as “mismanagement” and “starvation,” all of which were cited significantly more often than what appears to be a single instance of bee mortality from pesticide exposure.