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Viewpoint: The new bee crisis is just like the old one: Phony

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

Never let a good crisis go to waste, Rahm Emanuel famously said.  But what do you do if the “crisis” turns out to be a dud?  Easy–invent a new one.

That’s what we’re seeing currently in Washington and Brussels, where government regulators, deprived of one environmental calamity–by, of all things, data–are scrambling for a new narrative.

For years environmentalists have been raising alarms about the “bee-pocalypse”–a supposed catastrophic decline in honeybee populations–and calling for an immediate ban of a new class of state-of-the-art “systemic” pesticides called neonicotinoids (“neonics” for short) which they blamed for the die-offs.

The media were all over the story, endlessly replaying the environmentalist meme that without bees to pollinate our crops, “one-third of every bite of food we eat” would disappear. Banning neonics and saving bees was tantamount to saving the world from starvation.

The science supporting a ban was questionable, to say the least. Poorly designed experiments that overdosed bees in the lab were contradicted by large-scale field studies that confirmed real-world experience–honeybees actually thrive in neonic-treated crops. But those lab studies were enough for the regulators in Brussels, who ignored their own scientists and the loud objections of the British, among others, and passed an EU-wide ban which started at the end of 2013.

Always alert for ways to emulate bad policy, the White House wasn’t far behind. Within months, the president set up a Pollinator Task Force mandated with stemming the “continued loss of commercial honey bee colonies…which could have profound implications for agriculture and food.” Meanwhile, the U.S. EPA took steps to severely restrict neonic use, and the provincial government of Ontario, Canada, announced plans for an 80 percent reduction in neonics by 2016.

But then the regulatory juggernaut hit a pothole. A few independent journalists decided to find out just how bad the “bee-pocalypse” was. Turns out it wasn’t the usual environmentalists’ exaggeration. It was a complete fabrication.

Hidden in plain sight on the websites of USDA and other regulatory organizations, official honeybee counts showed rising numbers of hives. In the United States, Canada, Europe and indeed the world as whole, honeybee counts have been rising–sometimes dramatically–since neonics first came on the market 20 years ago.

The gears in the propaganda mill began to shift and grind almost immediately. As Wired magazine’s resident bee expert explained to the true believers, “you’ve been worried about the wrong bees.” After countless articles warning of the bee-pocalypse, she explained that, “Honeybees will be fine…. The bees you should be worried about are the 3,999 other bee species living in North America…”

In the nick of time, a new crisis–another one that shouldn’t go to waste.

The European Academies Science Advisory Council quickly cobbled together a report explaining that honeybees are not a good “indicator species,” and warning instead of catastrophic declines in wild bees, which we seem to have just discovered are really much more important for pollinating crops.

Soon after, the European Commission shifted into full politburo mode to announce that—in spite of mountains of documentation, thousands of press reports, and the clear statements of the EC at the time to the contrary–the neonic ban “was at no time based on a direct link on bee mortality.”  (Memo to the EU bureaucrats: Plausible denial is supposed to be plausible.)

The White House Task Force, apparently caught flat-footed, has now delayed its final report for almost four months, no doubt trying to come up with a convincing rationale for a ban that was probably pre-cooked into the recommendations. (It’ll be interesting to see how plausible their revisionism is.)

Related article:  It’s all bug spray in the end: Organic pesticides not necessarily safer for bees

There are signs that USDA is not playing along with the charade. Today (May 13), the EPA assistant administrator overseeing the registration of neonics, Jim Jones, faces off against the Agriculture Department’s acting chief economist, Robert Johansson, at a congressional hearing on pollinators. Johannson recently wrote a blistering letter to EPA publicly excoriating the agency for the “premature” and “incomplete” report that claimed that neonics were unnecessary for soybean farming. The EPA report was summarily rejected by the American Soybean Association as out of touch with reality, but until USDA called EPA’s bluff, it was widely seen as the first move toward further restrictions on neonic use.

Wild bees present some advantages for the environmentalists: There are no good baseline data–some 400 wild bee species haven’t even been named yet–so the activists and bureaucrats have even more latitude than usual to make unsubstantiated, apocalyptic claims.

The facts we do have, however, don’t suggest any sort of crisis with wild bees either. There have been some declines due to loss of habitat after World War II (think housing and commercial development) and in the case of some bumblebee species, diseases. But a detailed scientific survey in Europe found that wild bees there have actually been rebounding since the 1990’s, when neonics came on the market. And the person who is doing the first baseline survey of wild bees for the U.S. Geological Survey, Sam Droege, doesn’t see a crisis; he is optimistic in part because after compiling a list of 770 bee species historically found in the eastern United States, Droege and his colleagues “consulted with regional experts and found that 95 percent have been spotted again within the past two decades.”

Finally, where is the crisis in food production for that one third of all crops pollinated by bees? The amount and quality of our food is improving all the time. A neonic ban, however, would be a $4.6 billion hit to the economy, deprive farmers of their only effective tool against many pests, and force the use of older pesticides that are less safe for farm workers–and significantly worse for bees.

But don’t expect facts to matter when the will to regulate is strong. The Obama White House has less than two years to give environmentalists another win–and bees are a major money raiser for them. Whatever “crisis” they need to invent to justify new regulations, we can count on this being a tough year for neonics and the farmers who depend on them.

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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