Attack of the killer regulators

Article Highlights

  • Usually legislators make policy decisions on controversial issues only after carefully weighing current research.

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  • The Dept of Agriculture reported in May that bee deaths dropped more than 25% this past winter.

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  • This is a textbook case of political meddling into science, with the health of bee pollinators in the crosshairs.

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Science can't be rushed. Usually legislators make policy decisions on controversial issues only after carefully weighing current research. But just the opposite has unfolded in the EU. European Commissioners last year passed a two-year ban on a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids in a preemptive move to protect honeybees, after sketchy reports of higher-than-normal winter deaths among the arthropods. Now the unintended consequences of what seems like a hasty decision are emerging.

Phased in during the 1990s, so-called neonics are usually applied to seeds, which then produce plants that systemically fight pests, thus reducing the need for spraying pesticides. When bee die-offs mysteriously escalated in 2006, advocacy groups pointed to genetically modified crops as the culprit. But with no evidence to support that speculation, attention shifted to pesticides, neonics in particular.

The commission's moratorium vote, which took effect throughout the EU in December 2013, came despite contradictory field evidence—and well before the release of a spate of new studies suggesting that bee health is now improving globally. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in May that bee deaths dropped more than 25% this past winter, and that the overall population has increased 13% since 2008. 

According to the latest report from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, bee populations have been steadily increasing over the past decade and have hit a record high, with the number of hives increasing even in Europe.

Yet EU officials passed the moratorium using anecdotal reports of high winter bee deaths. (Beehives regenerate quickly in the summer, so normal winter losses don't necessarily translate into declining populations.)

Only after the EU decision did the commission complete its first-ever comprehensive study on bee health, known as Epilobee. Released in April this year, the commission's survey focused on 17 EU states in 2012-13, when Europeans shivered through the kind of harsh winter that often decimates bee colonies. Although neonics were widely in use at the time, 11 countries accounting for 75% of Europe's bees experienced winter-loss rates of only 3.5-15.3% during the period. That's far better than the 18.9% rate that beekeepers in the U.S. say is acceptable.

According to the EU's report: "Members States with more than 20% mortality rates (Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, and U.K.) represent 6.24% of the surveyed population"—a tiny fraction of Europe's bees. And in these countries, weather was identified as the culprit: "[H]igh rates of winter mortality were located in the Northern member states of the European Union suggesting a strong geographical influence probably due to climate."

An April report in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (ETC) reviewed bee health over multiple years and reached a similar conclusion: "The epidemiological evidence from Europe shows no correlation of honeybee losses to pesticide use and indicates the presence of causal factors other than pesticides."

That ETC study also noted the disjunction between controlled experiments and reports from farms. When force-fed or injected with neonics, bees have shown disturbing effects. But most entomologists are cautious about the meaningfulness of such research. Two studies headed by Harvard biologist Chensheng Lu, which are often cited by advocacy groups, fed the bees doses of neonics 10-to-100 times higher than what they encounter on farms, and for months at a time.

In contrast, studies monitoring bees in fields have shown little or no adverse effects where neonics are used. Lab studies that make research so attractive to scientists looking for quick answers often make it impossible to account for the complex activity in hives, which many scientists believe self-regulate, naturally clearing toxins. Neonics, ETC researchers concluded, "do not cause acute toxic effects on foraging honeybees or significant health effects to colonies."

Will European policy makers revisit the moratorium in light of the new evidence? If they do not, food prices will rise along with farming costs. A working paper by the Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture estimated the EU ban could cost Europe €17 billion over the next five years as farmers shift to less efficient chemicals and land-use practices. The costs might be justifiable if evidence showed that neonics use was killing off honeybees. But the EU instituted its precautionary ban without actually examining beehives—firing first and then asking questions.

To control pests, European farmers faced with the neonics ban are now being forced to turn to more toxic chemicals: organophosphates and pyrethroids, known pollinator destructors, according to a January study in the Journal of Applied Ecology. The researchers expressed particular concern that patchwork bans and moratoriums not supported by science could result in stressing bee colonies even more, leaving bees in a worse state than before the EU commission decided to intervene to save them.

What's clear is that there is no "bee apocalypse," as advocacy groups have claimed, to justify emergency bans on pesticides that on balance help farmers—while limiting risks to bee health. This is a textbook case of political meddling into science, with the health of bee pollinators in the crosshairs.

Mr. Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

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