How conflicts of interest, NGO activism undermine European bee health oversight

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The European Union’s ban of three neonicotinoid insecticides (aimed at saving honeybees) was developed as a logical consequence of the European Food Safety Authority’s draft bee guidance document. This document, which introduced new guidelines for what could be considered as acceptable bee research field trial, set standards that, in my opinion, were so high that none of the existing bee field research could be accepted into the risk assessment process nor would any future trials ever meet the standards. In an exchange between myself and EFSA, it appears to me that the EU Authority was deceived into accepting the 2013 document under the following assumptions:

  • That there were no conflicts of interest by any of the members of the EFSA Working Group on Bee Risk Assessment.
  • That the report was produced internally by EFSA staff.
  • That the report will someday be accepted by the European Council as a legitimate document.

EFSA has become a victim of an activist intervention to skew the risk assessment process in favor of certain NGO anti-pesticide campaign objectives. This has become a clear strategy in the Activist Playbook — to plant environmental NGO-associated scientists on government panels or working groups to influence the risk assessment process. Such was the case when the Environmental Defense Fund’s activist scientist, Christopher Portier moved into the heart of the IARC glyphosate monograph. The EFSA working group on bee risk assessment had, at one time, three activists pushing unworkable guidelines for bee-related pesticide assessments.

Story of the draft bee guidance document

The EFSA working group on bee risk assessment met regularly from 2011 to 2013 when the draft document was published. The minutes from their meetings can be found here and here (it should be noted that the earlier EFSA minutes were taken off-line and are only accessible via a web archiving service). Two members of the working group (James Cresswell and Jacoba Wassenberg) were removed during the course of the preparatory work in 2012 due to affiliations with industry-funded research, but two other members (Gérard Arnold and Fabio Sgolastra), who had affiliations with NGO groups and activities, were allowed to remain. See the BeeGate blog for more details on their conflicts of interest.

An unworkable document: The bee guidance document set standards for pesticide risk assessments that were so demanding as to be impossible. For example, it demanded that all honeybee field trials with pesticides would have a mortality rate of only 7%. Normal hive mortality rates are closer to 15%. The document also would only accept data from field trials conducted over a minimum area of 104 square miles. Honeybees do not travel anywhere near this distance from the hive, although it is obvious that the point here is the impossibility to find such available test sites. See more information on the demands of the document here. In short, the conditions imposed by the working group appear to be designed to exclude any bee research data from field trials.

Precaution by design Once the document was accepted into use by the EFSA (although not by the European Council), the conclusion appeared to be baked into the process. Some lab feeding tests (where bees are kept in small cages and directly fed pesticides) showed effects from pesticides, and given that now there were no accepted field trial results with data under realistic conditions, that was the only data “available” for the risk assessment. Since the burden of proof that the neonicotinoids were safe had not been met, EFSA could only advise a precautionary approach until further data could be produced. The European Commission moved quickly in 2013 to ban three neonicotinoid insecticides.

Since then, the following information has come to light:

  • The honeybee population was not suffering declines (and neither was there a risk of the apocalyptic collapse predicted by critics.)
  • The European Commission’s own research showed that pesticides were not a serious threat to pollinator health.
  • Since the ban, European farmers were spending more time and money using older, more toxic sprays that were less effective than the systemic neonics leaving more damage to the environment and bees (see infographic).
  • Farmers were choosing to plant less pollen-rich crops like oilseed rape, having a further negative effect on bee health.
  • The neonicotinoid ban is having serious economic consequences on European agriculture, with the ban costing oilseed rape farmers almost a billion euros a year.

Despite this evidence, the NGOs continue to manufacture “alternative facts”, shift the focus towards the evidence-poor wild bee populations, and seem likely to succeed in convincing the European Commission to make the neonicotinoid ban permanent.

I would now like to add more evidence to this story to show how EFSA was deceived by activists who not only gamed the bee risk assessment process, but also went through an elaborate process to hide the truth from EFSA and the European public.

 

A Conflict of Interest

After exposing how the anti-pesticide activist scientists used many levels of subterfuge to push for a ban on a benign and efficient class of pesticides (what became known as BeeGate), I was frustrated to see little action by regulators to reverse a decision that was hurting farmers. There was a glaring hypocrisy that a conflict of interest by scientists funded by NGO activists was not treated in the same way as a conflict of interest by scientists working on projects with industry funding.

I went to the European Parliament in 2015 and, during a public hearing, asked an EFSA director about this issue of conflicts of interest on the working group. He chose not to answer my questions, so I published them as an open letter and sent it to him via email. There were essentially four questions:

  1. Does EFSA have a policy towards conflicts of interest for NGO activists who get their way onto EFSA scientific working groups or other bodies?
  2. Has anything been done to correct the situation caused by Arnold and Sgolastra?
  3. Given how the draft bee guidance document has been corrupted by such conflicts of interest, shouldn’t EFSA withdraw it rather than continue to use it to invalidate good available research?
  4. And from that, would EFSA then reconsider (withdraw) its advice in 2013 on the three neonicotinoids, which led to an EU-wide ban that has had such a negative effect on farmers, consumers and, sadly, on bee health?

A few months later, I received a response (efsa-letter) from the EFSA legal department head, Dirk Detken. It was thorough and reassuring. He assured me that EFSA took conflicts of interest from NGO-sponsored activists as seriously as those funded by industry. While he considered Sgolastra’s behaviour as personal, he was worried about Gérard Arnold’s activist affiliations. Recall that Arnold was the scientific coordinator of the beekeeper lobbying NGO, Apimondia. They were sounding the alarm on bee mortality in 2008 predicting that the European beekeeping industry would be wiped out within ten years. Arnold was tasked with setting up the Bees and Pesticides Working Group in Apimondia. He did not note his past involvement in this NGO on his EFSA Declaration of Interests.

On Gérard Arnold, EFSA stated:

“On Mr. Arnold, the information you bring to light seem to indicate that this expert neglected to declare upfront his involvement in an organisation of relevance to one of the tasks of the EFSA WG. To establish if such an omission actually happened, procedures aimed at verifying possible “breaches of the rules” have been triggered pursuant to Articles 14 and 15 of EFSA’s rules on Declarations of Interest. … In this context, upon EFSA’s request, the expert clarified that no meeting was held by the Apimondia working Group during the time he was cooperating with the Authority. After receiving this explanation from the expert, EFSA can confirm that although from a purely formalistic point of view an omission of a relevant activity has occurred, this did not result in a “breach of trust” since the activity actually did not take place, and as such could not be liable of creating a conflict of interest with Mr Arnold’s role in EFSA.”

So if Arnold had been doing work for Apimondia during the 2011-13 EFSA years, there would have been a problem. Arnold informed EFSA that he wasn’t (so no problem then).

Detken then went on to say that even if there were a conflict, the bee guidance document was “developed and drafted by EFSA staff” so there was no way Arnold and Sgolastra could have compromised the process. Well … no! In the acknowledgements to the EFSA bee document, credit is given:

EFSA wishes to thank the members of the working group: … for the preparatory work on this scientific output and EFSA staff: … for the support provided to this scientific output.

Reading through the Working Group minutes, especially the initial stages, it is clear who provided the output – it was not EFSA.

To make matters worse, Arnold published an article co-authored with an activist scientist from the anti-neonicotinoid IUCN Taskforce on Systemic Pesticides, Laura Maxim. In the article, they argue that there needs to be a new methodological framework for risk assessments. The article shared information on what happened on the EFSA working group, peppered with unrealistic data produced by the IUCN taskforce.

Arnold clearly had an interest and an influence in the development of EFSA’s bee document. Of the four key EFSA working group members outside of Arnold, Sgolastra was engaged in anti-pesticide activism (he signed the Pesticide Action Network letter lobbying the US government to take strong action to ban neonicotinoids to save the bees) and two members had no experience in bee field trials. So Arnold did indeed have influence and interest. But was it a conflict of interest?

Conflict of integrity

I do not blame EFSA for failing to fully investigate Arnold’s claims. My first Internet search to check if Arnold was, as he claimed, not involved in Apimondia’s Bees and Pesticides Working Group showed nothing. Literally nothing. In fact, Arnold disappeared from the Internet between 2011 and 2013. During his time at EFSA, he was a ghost. So I used the Internet archive search tool, WayBackMachine, to see if there were pages on Arnold’s Apimondia site that were taken down. For any page evolutions between 2011 and 2013, WayBackMachine gave me a message that they were not allowed to see page histories for that site. I could see changes made on Apimondia before and after that period, but nothing during the EFSA years.

To make matters worse, files on the Apimondia site started to look very strange. For example, a page was uploaded in 2016 about the formation of the Adverse Effects of Agrochemicals and Bee Medicines on Bees Working Group in 2011. For the members of the Apimondia Working Group, I found the word “etc.” at the bottom of the list. Who uploads a 2011 document only in 2016, with the word “etc” on a member list of ten names?Once again, I had no access to the archived Apimondia pages from 2011.

Smelling something foul here, I went “old school”. I asked my bee research network if they had any Apimondia newsletters from this 2011-13 period, and sure enough they did. These documents showed Arnold was involved with the Apimondia Adverse Effects of Agrochemicals and Bee Medicines on Bees Working Group while he was serving on the EFSA working group on bees. In fact, in a 2012 Apimondia Newsletter, Arnold was listed as the Coordinator of AWG9 (see screenshot from page 27). This would make sense since he set up the working group.

apimondia-newsletter

Ghost-busted

What doesn’t make sense is the effort that Apimondia went through during the period after my BeeGate publications to try to erase any of Arnold’s involvement in order to protect the EFSA achievements.  How did Arnold set up the group in 2010 and then mysteriously disappear into an “etc” in a 2011 document that was uploaded in 2016? Answer: Arnold was always serving as coordinator. It was a heroic effort for a less than heroic subterfuge indicating, quite clearly, how seriously the Apimondia organisation had invested themselves in this “campaign”.

EFSA was deceived and this was no accident. It was a calculated case of activist malice which certainly has more than simple ethical consequences. This has disgraced the entire process EFSA had relied on to determine a sound risk assessments to ensure pollinator health. It also discredits the advice they gave the European Commission. The consequences of this scandal have negatively affected not only European farmers, consumers, the environment and bee health, but also, now, the credibility of EFSA.

How many other NGO activists have used these same techniques to get onto EFSA panels to influence the risk assessment process? It should be noted that Apimondia, like most NGOs, does not appear to impose an ethical code of conduct on its members. So as far as they are concerned, I suppose, there has been no wrongdoing. I have already demonstrated how certain NGO groups do not feel the need to be transparent and accountable. This is also something I call zealot ethics: where activists find superiority in the righteousness of their green dogma over commonly shared societal norms and virtues, like honesty.

As an aside to this story, I also discovered (in documents that had been taken offline) that a third activist scientist was implicated in the EFSA working group. Noa Simon Delso participated actively on the EFSA group while she was involved in the IUCN anti-neonic Taskforce on Systemic Pesticides, while she was involved on the same Apimondia Bees and Pesticides Working Group and while she was involved in a Belgian bee NGO CARI.  It doesn’t matter anymore that I keep finding further activist conflicts of interest– this EFSA working group has lost legitimacy and so has the rejected bee guidance document they produced.

How many others are out there implementing this activist playbook strategy on regulatory bodies?

Pot, IARC, Black

I would fully expect that EFSA Executive Director Bernhard Url would retract the unworkable bee guidance and reconsider the 2013 advice on the three neonicotinoids.

I fully supported Url’s position against IARC’s twisted activist science on glyphosate and celebrated his rejection of their Facebook approach to science. What has happened here is no different (except that until today, EFSA did not know about this activist abuse,  while IARC seemed to have invited it). Well now EFSA knows and, unless they act, they risk coming close to IARC’s abominable standards of scientific rigor.

I understand that EFSA is in a difficult situation given that they have been stuck with this illegitimate baby. But as this baby grows up, it will become more unruly — every pesticide, including those approved for organic farming, would fail to meet its standards.

It is not just about the discomfort of EFSA admitting that its standards were influenced by a deception. It is also about EU farmers, consumers, the economy and the environment.

A version of this article appeared on the Risk-Monger blog as “The Neonicotinoid Bee Guidance Document: How EFSA was deceived by activist scientists,” and has been republished here with permission from the author. 

David Zaruk is a Belgian-based environmental-health risk policy analyst specializing in the role of science in policy and societal issues. He blogs under the pseudonym: The Risk-Monger. Follow him on Twitter at @zaruk

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Thanks. Without folks like you we would most likely not find out this stuff.