Viewpoint: The dreaded ‘green blob’ is the most dire threat to bees

This article originally ran at Forbes and has been republished here with permission of the author.

If neonicotinoid pesticides were banned–as activists are demanding–U.S. farmers’ productivity would drop and they would resort to more toxic chemicals, the nation’s agricultural economy would be damaged, food prices would increase, and bees would be much worse off.

Magazine editor and satirist H.L. Mencken was right that there is an easy solution to every human problem—and that it is invariably neat, plausible, and wrong.  In that category is the insistence of anti-pesticide crusaders and the organic food industry that federal regulators should ban neonicotinoids (“neonics” for short), the mostly widely used class of pesticides.

Activists commonly cite two justifications for such a ban: the presence of pesticide residues in foods and the supposedly detrimental effect of the chemicals on bees.

Neither of these rationales is valid.;

Apparently the activists don’t know much about the sources of pesticidal substances found in our diet.  The vast majority that we consume occur “naturally,” and they are present in organic foods as well as those that are produced with conventional methods.

In a landmark research article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of California, Berkeley, biochemist Bruce Ames and his colleagues found that “99.99 percent (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves. Only 52 natural pesticides have been tested in high-dose animal cancer tests, and about half (27) are rodent carcinogens; these 27 are shown to be present in many common foods.”

The bottom line of Ames’ experiments: “Natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests. We also conclude that at the low doses of most human exposures the comparative hazards of synthetic pesticide residues are insignificant.”

In other words, consumers who buy organic foods in order to avoid pesticide exposure are focusing their attention on 0.01% of the pesticides they consume–and paying a huge price premium.

The anti-pesticide activists also seem neither to know nor to care about the role of neonics in American agriculture and the nation’s economy.

The neonics were derived from a naturally-occurring plant substance, nicotine, about 20 years ago.  They act on the nicotinic receptors in insects’ nervous system, which are critical to insects’ functioning but are almost insignificant in vertebrate and mammalian–including human–physiology.  Consequently, these compounds are much safer for humans and other vertebrates than previous generations of pesticides, such as carbamates and organophosphates.

Neonics are also more selective in their action than earlier pesticides.  Commonly applied as a seed treatment or to the soil at the plant’s roots, the pesticide is taken up into the plant, becoming more dilute as the plant grows, so that it is present at only low levels in the plant’s flowers and fruit.  By far the highest concentrations of neonics are in the stems and leaves of plants—where predatory insects most often feed—rather than in the flowers, where pollinators feed.

The result is that especially in the crop’s vulnerable seedling stage, the neonics in the plant control only the insects that actually feed on the crop–quite an improvement over earlier pesticides that killed insects indiscriminately, often with disruption of the wider ecology.  Moreover, a single neonic seed treatment, sometimes supplemented by a single sprayed application, is usually enough for the whole season for many crops–another advance over previous compounds that required multiple sprayed applications throughout the growing season.

In spite of having been derived from a natural plant substance (not unlike many organically-approved pesticides), the safety for humans and other vertebrates, high specificity for the pests that feed on the crop, and reduction of the amount of pesticides applied during the crop’s growing season, the banning of neonics has become a high priority for anti-pesticide activists. Their primary rationale is that the chemicals are bad for bees, but bee populations in the U.S. and Europe remain at healthy levels for reproduction and critical pollination of food crops and trees. Contrary to oft-repeated claims, honeybee populations are not declining.

According to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization statistics, the world’s honeybee population rose to 80 million colonies in 2011 from 50 million in 1960.  In the U.S. and Europe, honeybee populations have been stable (or even rising slightly over the last couple of years) during the two decades since neonics were introduced, according to U.N. and USDA data. Statistics Canada reports an increase to 672,000 honeybee colonies in Canada, up from 501,000, over the same two decades.

In February, the Australian government issued a report on bee health from the only continent unaffected by the Varroa destructor mite, a pathogen of bees. It found that “Australian honeybee populations are not in decline, despite the increased use of [neonicotinoids] in agriculture and horticulture since the mid-1990s.”

In April, the EU released the first continent-wide epidemiological study of bee health in Europe, which encompassed 2012-2013–before the EU’s neonic ban went into effect. Seventy-five percent of the EU’s bee population (located in 11 of the countries surveyed) experienced overwinter losses of 15% a year or less—levels considered normal in the U.S. Only 5% of the EU’s bee population (located in six northern countries) experienced losses over 20%, and that was after a long, severe winter.

It is true that during much of the past decade there have been higher-than-normal overwinter bee-colony losses in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as cases of bees abruptly abandoning their hives, a phenomenon known as “Colony Collapse Disorder,” but this has little or nothing to do with neonics.  There is only circumstantial or discredited experimental evidence of harm to bees by neonics.  Many laboratory studies performed on both sides of the Atlantic purport to show that various lethal or sub-lethal effects can be induced in bees by different engineered exposures to neonicotinoids, but the large-scale field studies that have exposed bees to field-realistic doses of neonics have not shown adverse effects on bees from such exposure.  (There have been three such studies in Europe, one in the UK, and two in Canada.)

A supposedly contrary study often cited by ban-the-neonics activists is one conducted by Chensheng Lu of the Harvard School of Public Health which exposed the insects to 30-100 times their usual exposure in the field.  That did poison the bees (which one would expect), but it doesn’t replicate real-world bee exposures and tells us nothing about Colony Collapse Disorder, contrary to Lu’s claims.  In any case, CCD seems now to be declining.  According to University of Maryland entomologist and director of the Bee Informed Partnership Dennis vanEngelsdorp, not a single case has been reported from the field in the last three years.

Bees would not benefit from a ban on neonics, because these pesticides are not the chief source of bees’ health problems.  They seem to be caused by Varroa mites along with at least 19 viruses, many of them lethal, that the mites introduce into bee colonies as they suck the bees’ hemolymph, the equivalent of blood.  In the process, Varroa transmission transforms what were formerly nuisance infections into colony-killers.  Other pathogens, including the gut fungus Nosema ceranae, which prevents infected bees from absorbing nutrients through their digestive systems, contribute to the complex of factors that affect bees’ health.

Rounding out the mix of stressors are the scarcity of clean, diverse forage (exacerbated by wide-scale monoculture) and the presence of pesticides introduced into hives by beekeepers to control mites and other predators.

Canada’s approximately $19 billion canola industry depends on neonics to prevent the ravenous cabbage-leaf flea beetle from wiping out the crop as the seedlings emerge.  Its 19 million acres of virtually 100% neonic-treated canola fields produce Canada’s most highly-prized honey–which comprises 80% of the nation’s total honey output; they support such thriving honeybee populations that they’ve been dubbed the “pastures for pollinators.”

A neonic ban would not help bees but it would devastate North American agriculture and the communities that depend on it.  Neonics are the last line of defense for Florida’s citrus industry against the Asian citrus psyllid, an insect that spreads a devastating disease of citrus trees called huanglongbing, or HLB. They’re also the first line of defense in Texas and California, where HLB is only just beginning.  Without neonic protection, Florida’s citrus industry will be extinct within a few years.  And without the use of these pesticides, tomatoes in Florida and vegetable crops in Arizona, California and the Pacific Northwest would be imperiled.  If whitefly infestations weren’t kept in check with neonics, a huge portion of U.S. winter vegetable production would be lost.

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Grape-growing in California and the Pacific Northwest could be devastated by the viral scourges of leaf-roll and red blotch without neonic pesticides to control the leafhoppers that spread them. Similarly, in the mid-South, without neonic protection against thrips in cotton, water weevil in rice and grape colaspis in soybeans, yields could be so adversely affected that farmers would either go out of business or turn to already abundant crops like corn.

The ripple effect of such losses would be devastating.  The production of citrus and tomatoes in Florida and rice and cotton in the mid-South and elsewhere is tied to processing plants, refrigerated warehouses, packing houses, cotton gins, rice mills, and a transportation and shipping infrastructure that supports the region’s agriculture.  If the crops processed by these support industries were to become economically nonviable in the absence of effective crop protection, rural counties across the southeastern U.S. would be decimated. We would see a kind of Community Collapse Disorder.

Ironically, neonics are indispensable to the organic farming industry.  Neonics can help to hold down populations of target pests in an entire region, like whitefly in Florida and in the Southwest.  Without this “halo effect,” these populations could spiral out of control, and their density could overwhelm the weaker pesticides permitted to the organic industry, damaging it as well.

None of this deters determined activists from insisting that neonics are the cause of bee’s health problems and demanding a complete ban of these products, however invaluable they may be to agriculture.

One irony of this position was pointed out by a corn grower at a February meeting in Iowa who warned, “If you want to harm bees, get rid of neonics.”  He pointed out that if neonics were banned, farmers would not simply watch their crops being eaten and their farms bankrupted by uncontrolled crop pests.  They would instead revert to applying the available but inferior EPA-approved pesticides used in the past.  These are broad-spectrum pesticides, typically sprayed or spread on the soil in granular form.  They kill everything that flies, crawls or creeps in the field, and these applications need to be repeated.  In place of one or two neonic applications, there may be a half dozen or more applications of older, more toxic chemicals.  It’s hard to see how that would be good for bees—or for that matter, for humans.

Many activists concerned with agricultural issues seem to operate under the presumption that farmers are stupid—that they neither care about the land nor understand where their self-interest lies.  None of this is true, of course.  Farmers have a deep and abiding interest in the stewardship of the land; after all, they own large swaths of it and derive their livelihood from it.  And they understand that bees are essential for the pollination of many of their crops and have no desire to endanger them.

Radical environmental activists are anything but benevolent or constructive.  The courageous former UK Environment Minister Owen Paterson on July 20 wrote about what he dubbed the “Green Blob,” “the mutually supportive network of environmental pressure groups, renewable energy companies and some public officials who keep each other well supplied with lavish funds, scare stories and green tape.”  He blasted it as a “tangled triangle of unelected busybodies [who claim] to have the interests of the planet and the countryside at heart,” but while serving in the ministerial post, Paterson found it to be “increasingly clear that [the Blob] is focusing on the wrong issues and doing real harm while profiting handsomely.”

I found this passage in Paterson’s op-ed particularly poignant: “I received more death threats in a few months at [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] than I ever did as secretary of state for Northern Ireland.  My home address was circulated worldwide with an incitement to trash it; I was burnt in effigy by Greenpeace as I was recovering from an operation to save my eyesight.”  In other words, these environmental activists are far from the image of earnest, benign, flannel-shirt-wearing, tree-huggers they like to project.

A ban on neonics in the name of protecting bees would be a travesty.  It would not benefit bees, but it would make life harder for farmers and painful for consumers, who would see their food costs rise significantly; and by making farm exports more expensive and less competitive, it would damage the U.S. economy.  It would, however, delight the Green Blob.

Henry I. Miller, a physician, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy & Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Follow him on Twitter @henryimiller.

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