Viewpoint: Scientists’ duplicity and conflicts of interest distort regulation and harm farmers

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

Scientists prostituting themselves by delivering “bespoke” scientific findings for their corporate sponsors and corrupting the scientific literature is a favorite trope of environmental and anti-industry activists. They rail against undisclosed conflicts of interest that, were they known, should exclude the individuals–and their technical expertise–from regulatory studies and deliberations, thus leaving the activists’ specious views largely unopposed.

But what if activist environmental scientists had their own conflicts of interest–undisclosed to governmental bodies or the public–so that their participation in regulatory bodies enabled them to push the positions and prescriptions of the organizations to which they were beholden? Wouldn’t that make the activists bleating about “transparency” and their pogroms against industry-connected scientists the height of hypocrisy? Wouldn’t that be an obvious and pernicious double standard?

The most recent case of undisclosed activist conflict of interest was unearthed at the end of January by investigator David Zaruk in Brussels. The case involves Gérard Arnold–a member of the scientific panel at the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA)–who helped draw up EFSA’s “Bee Guidance Document,” while concealing his ongoing leadership role in Apimondia, an anti-pesticide global federation of beekeepers’ organizations.

EFSA’s Bee Guidance Document established the testing criteria and risk thresholds for determining whether neonicotinoid pesticides (“neonics,” for short) pose a risk to bees–which are key pollinators of crops and, hence, important contributors to the world’s food supply. Neonics are state-of-the-art, human- and animal-safe pesticides, mostly applied as coatings to crop seeds and intended to be taken up into the plant to control pests that feed on crops, particularly in their tender, early weeks of growth. When they are used that way, there is minimal exposure to bees and other non-target, beneficial insects.

Originally registered as “reduced-risk” pesticides thanks to their advantageous features, neonics became controversial in recent years once they became the most widely used class of pesticides worldwide; some beekeepers in Europe and North America began blaming them for higher-than-normal rates of honeybee colony losses they were experiencing. (We now know that the honeybee health problems of recent years stem from a complex combination of factors, the most important of which are the varroa destructor parasitic mite and the dozen or so diseases that it spreads to the inhabitants of honey bee hives.)

According to Zaruk’s investigation, Arnold was found to be serving as the “coordinator” of the anti-pesticide Apimondia working group on “Adverse Effects of Agrochemicals and Bee Medicines on Bees” (designated “AWG 9,” which Arnold apparently founded in 2010) during the 2011-2013 period while he was working with EFSA on the Bee Guidance Document. In spite of being required by EFSA”s rules to disclose such a relationship, Arnold failed to do so. Later, when challenged on this omission, he claimed the Apimonida working group hadn’t met during the period of his work on the EFSA guidance document. That seemed unlikely, but when Zaruk went back to investigate, he found that Apimondia records and web pages for this period had been completely erased from the Internet and could not even be found in the usual web archives. Luckily, Zaruk was able to find individuals who had kept old Apimondia newsletters and screen captures, and from these Zaruk was able to document that Arnold had indeed been working on Apimondia’s AWG 9 during the period when he claimed that he had not.

This obvious violation might seem like nothing more than a no-harm-no-foul, record-keeping lapse–if it weren’t for the significance of the Bee Guidance Document. It provided a foundation for the European Commission’s 2013 decision to impose a supposedly “temporary” ban on neonic pesticides–a decision that has cost farmers hundreds of millions of Euros in largely avoidable crop losses–and continues to provide the basic regulatory framework on which the EU Commission is relying to make its ultimate decision on whether to make the ban permanent.

Moreover, the guidance document’s criteria for assessing neonic risks to bees create a Catch-22 situation that makes the criteria practically impossible to satisfy. To certify that a pesticide poses no risk to honey bees, the Bee Guidance Document requires that the chemical produce no more than a 7% drop in bee colony numbers, but because honey bee colonies naturally can fluctuate in size by 15% or more–due to a cold snap, for example–it is virtually impossible to show that colony fluctuations larger than 7% weren’t caused by a pesticide. Similarly, the specifications for the conduct of field studies–the most realistic test of pesticides’ effects on honey bee colonies–require a field area of some 448 square kilometers, which is four times the area of Paris, France. That condition is practically impossible to satisfy in densely populated Europe.

In other words, if consistently applied, this EFSA guidance could end up eliminating as potentially harmful virtually all crop protection products in Europe. The resulting damage to European agriculture and industry would be enormous.

Those impractical strictures may be why the EU’s member governments have refused to approve the Bee Guidance Document on multiple occasions since 2013. However, the bizarre practices of EU regulation permit EFSA to apply this unsanctioned guidance for assessing neonics’ effects on bees as if it had been approved.

But all this is only the latest chicanery in activist scientists’ efforts to promote the EU’s neonic ban:

  • In 2015, David Goulson–perhaps the most vocal and oft-quoted anti-neonic scientist–was shown to have produced research with funding from the activist group 38 Degrees that appeared predetermined to reach an anti-neonic conclusion. And last month he was at it again, co-authoring an anti-neonic report for the radical anti-everything environmentalist group Greenpeace–hardly a reliable, respectable research outlet.
  • In 2014, in a scandal dubbed “bee-gate,” investigator Zaruk revealed that scientists participating in the “Task Force on Systemic Pesticides” of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature were plotting to concoct a series of supposedly “scientific” studies, with preordained conclusions about neonics harm to bees, destined for high-profile journals, expressly to stampede the EU Commission into banning these crop protection products.
  • Investigative journalists Richard North and James Delingpole documented how, by approving an erroneous and misleading press release about EFSA’s study conclusions regarding neonic harm to bees, the French-born director of the European Food Safety Agency helped push the EU Commission into adopting its 2013 neonic ban. Her action provided cover for the previous year’s decision by France’s newly installed socialist and strongly environmentalist minister of agriculture to ban these products in France–and after the EU adopted its neonic ban, she was promptly appointed to one of the most senior posts in France’s agriculture ministry.

These political, conflict-of-interest-riddled, science-be-damned moves to install the EU’s neonic ban are relevant now for three reasons:

  • First, France’s own agriculture ministry recently released documents acknowledging that the honeybee health problems of recent years are mainly attributable to parasites–specifically varroa destructor mites–and the pathogens they spread to beehives. Pesticides are responsible for only a four percent contribution to bees’ health problems–and this includes all pesticides, even those used by beekeepers inside the hive to control for varroa mites and other parasites. This is, of course, precisely what most unbiased bee experts have long maintained, but it shows that the wall of ideological opposition to neonic pesticides is starting to crack–in the country where it all started.
  • Second, France’s Court of Cassation–its highest appeals court in civil and criminal cases–in January issued its judgement in favor of agro-chemical company and neonic manufacturer Bayer AG. The court upheld Bayer’s appeal, which had argued that French authorities had no scientific basis for banning their neonic products since they could not show a causal connection between Bayer’s product Gaucho (whose active ingredient is the neonic, imidacloprid) and harm to bees.
  • Finally, in mid-February the European Court of Justice will hear oral arguments in a lawsuit in which neonic manufacturers claim that the EU’s 2013 neonic ban was improperly decided and applied–after which it will render its verdict sometime later this year.

With all the shady dealings by anti-pesticide activists and dishonest politicians to ban neonics–evidence be damned–it’s high time for the EU’s highest court to do the right thing and strike down once and for all the EU’s corruptly procured neonic ban.

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.

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