If the European Food Safety Authority report on bees and neonicotinoids results in the European Commission banning the seed treatments in question, then there will be many holding their breath on bee health in Europe. Why?
Because the presentation and Europe-wide media reporting of the EFSA report has been managed to make it look as if EFSA had been definitive and decisive in its conclusion that neonics are damaging European bee populations and that therefore they should be banned. Problem solved.
But if you strip away all the sound and fury, and all the spinning, the claims, counter-claims and the name calling, three sobering points emerge from the EFSA report that should be the first, second and third points of any consideration about what governments and the European Commission ought to do to save the bees.
Firstly, EFSA was under acute political pressure to produce a risk assessment quickly, it was therefore hurried, partial and inadequate. EFSA even acknowledges that the report contains a high level of uncertainty. It has not taken account of the comprehensive scientific studies that preceded the launch of neonicotinoids, and has ignored all the results since then of extensive monitoring in the field which proves the safety of this vital technology. This is a crucial failing.
Secondly, the report is not comparatively balanced. A recent study showed that without neonicotinoid seed treatment, crop yields would fall by up to 40% and cost the EU economy around €17bn over 5 years. This would threaten 50,000 jobs and reduce the income of nearly 1m people. In addition, the loss of crop productivity here would be made up by farming an additional 3m hectares of land outside of Europe at a cost of 600m tons of CO2 emissions. This will certainly happen if neonicotinoids are banned. But what if the bees continue to die after the ban? This nightmare possibility cannot be excluded.
Thirdly, the report does not say that neonicotinoids harm bees. It says it is not possible to make this claim given the evidence that it has chosen to use. Indeed, had it accepted many years of robust research in proper field conditions, it might well have been minded to go further and state that neonicotinoids do not harm bees when used properly. But instead the report says it has enough evidence to be concerned that harm might be done to bees, and therefore favors precaution over common sense.
Seed treated with neonicotinoids has been used across millions of hectares of European crops for over ten years. The technology does not damage bee populations and this is why many EU countries have continued to support its use.
A thriving bee population is vital for sustainable agriculture but so too are innovative and effective crop treatments.
EFSA’s report does not recognize this and entrenches the precautionary principle in agricultural technology. This will set Europe back years, if not decades. And the nightmare scenario is that bee health might continue to deteriorate…