Science sacrificed in PR campaign on neonics

Posted on: July 3, 2014

Categories:  Pollinators

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Recently it seemed that just about every paper, web site, TV station and radio channel ran apocalyptic stories about the demise of bees and laid the blame squarely at the feet of a relatively new class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. It is a shame because this distracts and misguides everyone who cares about honey bees and the environment.

A small group of scientists said they reviewed over 800 existing studies and come to some new and truly alarming conclusions. Conveniently, this group seems to have found one solution to a plethora of environmental issues saying that if we ban these products, the struggles of songbirds, amphibians, bees and other beneficial insects will be over.

If only it were that simple.

First of all, it is inaccurate to say there is a bee health crisis in Canada. According to Stats Canada, bee populations in this country have been growing for close to two decades now and are currently more robust than ever. And Canada is not alone. Many countries have stronger-than-ever bee populations. That is not to say that some jurisdictions and some beekeepers have not experienced serious losses, including here in parts of Canada after what was a particularly harsh winter. However, losses of this kind have been occurring for decades – long before neonics were even on the market.

Secondly, many of the studies that were reviewed by the group calling themselves the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides are lab studies where bees are exposed to unrealistically high doses of neonics. It’s not surprising then that there are negative effects under such circumstances.  If you feed any chemical to a bee, or any organism, at high enough levels you will find there’s an impact. The reality that appears to have been ignored here is that under realistic field conditions, bees are never exposed to anywhere near the levels being used in some of these studies.

Pesticides, including neonics, are important tools for farmers because they help reduce the threat of insects, weeds and diseases.  Neonicotinoids, which are designed specifically to target insects, are most frequently applied directly to very small seeds which are then planted in the ground and protect the seed and seedling from insects that attack the plant in its early stages of growth.

When neonics were first introduced a little over a decade ago they were celebrated because of their low toxicity to humans and the fact that they very specifically target insects, thus reducing the potential for unintended consequences. With the introduction of neonics, science helped agricultural innovation take a big step forward.

But this isn’t really about science. The orchestrated way these “findings” were released makes that clear.

If this study were really about anything scientific there would be much more transparency. The Task Force would have released its data at the same time it began speaking publicly on the issue so that others in the scientific community – and the media – could examine the veracity of the grave statements being made.

Instead, we’ve seen international news conferences, high-quality videos shot at international locales, and coordinated cries for action from a coven of known anti-pesticide activists groups who use these types of situations to raise their profiles and support fundraising efforts. These activities reveal this week’s events for what they really are: a high-stakes, well-funded and sophisticatedly executed public relations strategy.

This is a concerted attack on agriculture and that’s a shame because much like we all need bees and other beneficial organisms, we also need farmers and farmers need tools like neonics to do the important work of providing us with safe, high-quality foods in a way that helps protect the environment for future generations.

Pierre Petelle

Vice-president of chemistry, CropLife Canada

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