Will we ‘bee’ smart about pesticide regulation?

Henry Miller Senior Fellow, Pacific Research Institute.
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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.

Even so, neonics represent only a small fraction of bees’ pesticide exposures, which include various highly toxic chemicals with which beekeepers douse their hives in a desperate attempt to stave off parasites. Eric Mussen, the well-respected apiculturalist at the University of California, Davis, points out that some 150 different chemical residues have been found in the pollen and wax gathered from beehives.

The most significant problem is the Varroa destructor mite, as any unbiased observer would likely conclude from the experience of New Zealand and Australia. Until recently, both countries had escaped the voracious parasite that has infected most of the world. Then New Zealand was affected, and “60 Minutes” in Australia produced a dramatic report on what happened, which is worth watching on YouTube. “Like Australia, New Zealand was proudly free of Varroa,” explains the reporter, “but then eight years ago, the mites somehow breached strict quarantine to invade almost every hive in the North Island. It’s very nearly destroyed beekeepers like Russell Berry.” “The reaction when we first got Varroa mite was absolutely devastating,” says Berry. “The first week you’re so depressed and every beekeeper in New Zealand’s the same way. It’s [very depressing when] you see Varroa mites eating your bees.”

Varroa has still not reached Australia (one of the few places on earth, along with a few countries in Africa, which is still Varroa-free), and so bees are thriving there. “We’re an island in this world of Varroa,” says an Australian bee expert in the “60 Minutes” report.

Australia does, however, use plenty of neonics, a fact assiduously ignored by the European Commission, the phalanx of environmentalist pressure groups and the mainstream media. They also manage to gloss over the way that the E.U.’s precautionary regulatory policies have reduced Europe — which is blessed with some of the finest soil and climate in the world — to a net food importer. The neonics ban will not only make that problem significantly worse, but it will also cost the European economy billions of Euros and put a million jobs in peril at a time when E.U. deficits are undermining the world’s economic stability and unemployment in Europe averages more than 12%.

Not surprisingly, immediately following the European Commission’s failed vote and Commissioner Borg’s announcement of the impending ban, activists demanded that the U.S. EPA and USDA follow suit. So far, to their credit, both U.S. agencies have declined to do so. Shortly after the E.U. vote, they held a joint media conference announcing the results of their studies of the issue, highlighting Varroa as the leading culprit in bee declines. When challenged by the press as to why U.S. policy is diverging so dramatically from the E.U.’s, an EPA official pointed out that the agency wants to figure out the real causes behind colony collapse, “not just because we adhere to science in some kind of an abstract way” but because “there are non-trivial costs to society if we get this wrong.” Neonics, they explained, are almost certainly preferable to the alternatives.

The unappetizing nature of those alternatives — including pyrethroids and organophosphates that are much more deadly to bees — is why the British Bee Keepers Association has loudly denounced the European Commission’s coming ban.

There is another important aspect of the bee disappearance issue: Could the “cure” represented by bans on neonics actually be worse than the “disease” of stressed bee populations? In a 2012 publication, “Colony Collapse Disorder: The Market Response to Bee Disease,” from the Property and Environment Research Center (Bozeman, MT), Randal Rucker and Walter Thurman address the latter part of that question — namely, the actual economic impacts of the stresses on bee populations. They conclude that despite the years of repeated warnings from activists and the media, there has been no apocalypse, because the operation of pollination markets reflects that “beekeepers are savvy entrepreneurs who use their wealth of knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place — acquired over their lifetimes of work — to adapt quickly to changing market conditions.” Moreover, “[n]ot only was there not a failure of bee-related markets, but they adapted quickly and effectively to the changes induced by the appearance of Colony Collapse Disorder.” Anyone who doubts that should “look at the prices of apples, pears, cherries, and blueberries and wonder why — in the face of impending doom — they can still afford to put these items in their children’s lunches and on their breakfast tables.”

Rucker and Thurman conclude: “In contrast to the doomsday scenarios used to describe CCD at its outset, the workings of the forces of competition to accommodate bee disease make less compelling headlines. The receding of CCD from the national consciousness will be noted by few, but the resilience and adaptation to bee disease by the beekeeping industry is a story worth noting — and savoring — along with one’s breakfast of honey on toast with pollinated fruit.”

Unlike European agriculture, with its huge subsidies and pretensions of farming “sustainably,” American agriculture is still a real industry that produces food, profits and exports, and there are many here who want to keep it that way. A ban on neonics in the United States would surely be a cure that is worse than the disease.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1993.