By Patrick Meagher
I recently received, from a very personable and sincere beekeeper, a 10-page list of about 400 studies on the harmful effects of neonicotinoid-insecticides on honeybees. It was an impressive, long list. It looked exhaustive and unanswerable, a veritable slam dunk: Neonics are evil.
How do you verify a list that long? Where to begin? I started with the source of the list, the U.S.-based Center for Food Safety, which it turns out, is an environmental activist organization masquerading as an independent, objective think-tank. On its board is Randy Hayes, described by the Wall Street Journal as an “environmentalist pit bull” who founded the Rainforest Action Network and, despite some good work, prefers the pre-industrial revolution era. The centre’s executive director, Andrew Kimbrell, is another environmental activist who opposes genetically-modified foods and conventional agriculture.
The list of studies echoes findings of the world’s largest environmental organization, the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature, that last year published its own list of 800 studies, more than enough to convince most people that neonics were invented in hell.
Surely, so many studies, pages and opinions should amount to conclusive evidence. They do for the province’s fiercely-biased environment commissioner, who points to the 800 studies to justify the province effectively banning neonics. But which studies on the list actually tipped the scale? Many of them have proven inconclusive. Others aren’t even studies at all, but fact sheets or simply conclusions without references. None of the studies is deemed “field realistic” — involving real-life events in the field.
So, does the sheer volume of 1,200 sources end the debate? Piling on sketchy data might be emotionally persuasive, but is it honest?
Not for Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute researcher Angela Logomasini, who has written extensively on this issue. She has yet to find one in-field study that concludes neonics are harming bees. “Some claim to be ‘field realistic’ but if they are feeding bees pesticide, they are not realistic,” she told Farmers Forum.
There is one study that, for the first time, looked at 15 years of research on the hazards of neonicotinoids. The 2012 study in Ecotoxicology by researchers at two universities in the Netherlands and one in Belgium, would have included looking at the studies compiled by the U.S. and Swiss environmental groups.
“Many lethal and sublethal effects of neonicotinoid insecticides on bees have been described in laboratory studies; however, no effects were observed in field studies with field-realistic dosages,” the researchers concluded. “There is still a need for testing field-realistic concentrations at relevant exposure and durations.”
Clearly, the science on neonics isn’t conclusive and nothing is settled.
A second important study analyzing the available data was published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry last year by researchers from Virginia Tech. Its conclusion was similar: “The available data indicate that there may be effects to individual honeybees housed under laboratory conditions and exposed to unrealistically high concentrations of the insecticides. However, under field conditions and exposure levels, similar effects on honeybee colonies have not been documented. It is not reasonable to conclude that crop-applied pesticides in general, or neonicotiniods, in particular, are a major risk factor for honeybee colonies.”
Knowing these results, the Grain Farmers of Ontario has still agreed to adapt planting practices to mitigate risk and is willing to accept a decision on the use of neonics, no matter which way it goes, based on sound science. They are right to think that the province is cherry-picking the research. The province calls it the precautionary principle.
In the ongoing reality show that is Queen’s Park, the winner of this debate goes to the side with the most votes on a survey and the longest list of studies. Who cares what’s in them?