David's blog posts for December 2014

Neonics, crop losses, and ‘green activists’ – a plea for a little more accuracy in the media



I warn you now: this blog won’t be of much interest unless you’ve been following the neonic debate closely. It is in response to an opinion piece in the Telegraph by Christopher Booker (6 December 2014) and several recent blogs in a similar vein.

The gist of the article by Booker is that a group of dodgy scientists and green activists working for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) got together in 2010 and plotted to get neonics banned. They are said to have received £350,000 of EU money via the IUCN to fund this work, which ultimately resulted in the current moratorium on neonics. This moratorium has, according to Booker, “done huge damage to agriculture all over Europe”. He cites a recent EU report as saying that the cost to UK farmers alone already stands at £640 million. Booker goes on to say that there is no good evidence that neonics harm bees. He states that Defra’s own field trials had shown no damage to bees, whereas the IUCN group relied only on highly artificial laboratory experiments to reach their conclusions. He finishes with the bold claim that Owen Paterson, who fought against the moratorium and cited the Defra field trial in support of his position, was “easily the best-informed and most effective Defra secretary of state we’ve ever had”.

This all sounds like a great tale of dodgy doings, but let’s look at the actual facts for a minute. There is a group of scientists, linked to IUCN, who published a series of peer-reviewed scientific review papers on the impacts of neonics on the environment in summer 2014. These papers are all available for anyone to read at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11356-014-3470-y. They are simply a review of the existing evidence – if you are really interested, read them yourself, and you can decide whether they are any good. I was asked to join this group in summer 2012, with a view to helping to write these papers, and it seemed like a good idea – the group contains many well-respected scientists from all over the world, bringing together diverse expertise. Scientists commonly come together in this way to write lengthy reviews of important topics. It is wildly inaccurate to say, as Booker does, that we relied “only on highly artificial laboratory experiments” – our reviews examined and describe hundreds of studies, many of them conducted in the field. The Defra field trial to which Booker attaches such weight was a total cock-up since all the ‘control’ bees became exposed to pesticides, so it was never published.      

You might wonder whether I received a share of the £350,000 for my contribution. So far as I know, there never was £350,000. I received nothing – in fact on the one occasion when I attended a meeting of this group I had to pay my own travel expenses. The whole thing was done on a shoestring, as meetings of scientists usually are. I did get a free cup of coffee. 

So what about the central claim that this group somehow engineered the neonic ban? The ban was proposed in January 2013, as a direct result of the European Food Standards Agency publishing three reports on neonics which concluded that they posed an “unacceptable risk” to bees. This was voted through in April 2013, and began in December 2013. Our reviews were not published until the summer of 2014, 16 months AFTER the ban was agreed in the European Parliament. So unless members of the European Parliament are able to see into the future, it is hard to see how their decision could have been influenced in any way by a group that had not at the time published anything whatsoever.

Finally, what about the “huge damage” that the neonic ban has done, and this figure of £640 million in crop losses in the UK alone?  I follow this topic closely, but have not heard of any such report. £640 million would represent the loss of about 12% of Britain’s entire agricultural output (including arable, dairy, horticulture etc.). Since the moratorium really only applies to oilseed rape, this would require the entire crop to have been wiped out (the total annual value of this crop varies between about £400 million and £700 million). However, the first sowing of oilseed rape without neonics in the UK was august 2014. About 1.5% was lost to flea beetle, according to the Home Grown Cereal Authority. Yes, that is correct - so 98.5% of the crop is fine. The crop won’t be harvest until summer 2015, so we have no way of knowing what the yield will be, or what losses, if there are any, might be due to the absence of neonics. So where on earth does this figure come from? Perhaps Booker also possesses the gift of foresight, and has foreseen a biblical plague of locusts in the spring?

Given all these wild inaccuracies, the claim that climate-sceptic Owen Patterson was “easily the best-informed and most effective Defra secretary of state we’ve ever had” starts to seem quite reasonable by comparison. Why do newspapers publish such twaddle?



PS To learn more about the neonicotinoid story, try reading chapter 13 of my new book, “A Buzz in the Meadow”