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Bee deaths – why let science spoil a good story?

Opinion piece by John Atkin, COO Syngenta, on the need for a scientific approach to preventing bee deaths

19 June 2012

BiodiversityArrested, convicted and at risk of being imprisoned without trial – despite a trail of evidence pointing to the real culprit.
Such is the case of Cruiser seed treatment in France.

In recent years bee populations have declined. Nobody knows exactly why, but there are several possible causes. A small parasitic mite called Varroa is principle amongst them. Beekeepers deploy many techniques to try and prevent the Varroa mite from causing damage, but none of them are particularly successful. In recent days, more evidence from a number of leading universities has come to light.   Scientists studied the impact of Varroa in Hawaii and found that its arrival increased the prevalence of a single type of virus in honey bees from around 10 percent to 100 percent. The findings suggest that the virus and mite combination is the main cause of the global decline in bee populations.

The French Minister of Agriculture, meanwhile, has proposed to suspend Cruiser for use on oilseed rape.  This decision on Cruiser is based on a single experimental study carried out by a team of French researchers affiliated with INRA (National Institute of Agronomic Research) which showed that, at doses far higher than bees would ever encounter in the field, they became disoriented and had difficulties returning to their hives.

Let's apply this methodology to our everyday lives. A person consuming 5 bottles of wine per day instead of the recommended safe intake of half a bottle would struggle to find his way home, if he could move at all. 20 aspirins instead of 2 could cause extreme stomach pain, nausea or worse. A car traveling in an urban area at 500 km per hour instead of 50 would be quite a danger to other road users.

Cruiser is applied to the seed at extremely low doses and the amount that gets into pollen and nectar is barely measurable.  Rigorous testing has shown that in real life Cruiser is harmless to bees.

Before coming to market Cruiser underwent the most demanding tests that could be designed, as well as the most practical. As a result, the regulators have supported its use in commercial agriculture and Cruiser has been used on millions of hectares of maize, oilseed rape, and sugar beet over the past 10 years with no damage to bee populations.  Cruiser is one of the best and most technologically advanced tools for protecting a crop against all manner of pests that would otherwise result in up to 30% loss of yield and threaten the production of the safe, healthy, affordable food from which we all benefit.

Whilst politically popular, the proposed suspension of Cruiser is costly as well as unsafe. In the first instance, Cruiser used on oilseed rape alone is worth an additional €100m to French agriculture and as much as €1billion across Europe – this is not money that any sector of the economy can easily forego today.   Not surprisingly, farmers and other stakeholders are deeply concerned by this turn of events.  They see a threat to France’s status as one of the world’s most productive agricultural economies.

Modern agriculture is itself an easy scapegoat and has been blamed for causing bee deaths by growing unappetizing crops which don’t provide enough food for bees.  But islands in the Pacific Ocean where there is no commercial agriculture – but an abundance of Varroa mites – have lost 95 percent of their bee colonies.

Syngenta, the manufacturer of Cruiser, spends over $1 billion a year on Research & Development.  Much of this is devoted to continuous improvements in product quality and to the development of solutions allowing a reduction in the quantity of chemicals used – such as seed treatment.  The crop protection industry has existed for over 50 years and the products used today have evolved just as much as, for example, cars or telephones over the same period.

France has a proud tradition of social justice. We urge the French authorities to maintain a corresponding standard of scientific justice.

On June 1st the French Minister of Agriculture Le Foll proposed a suspension of Cruiser OSR. The French Safety Agency ANSES stated in their report that the decision was based on one, non-validated experimental study and that dose used in this study is much higher than would be encountered in practice. They stand by their earlier evaluations of the safety of Cruiser.

In mid-June, the University of Sheffield (UK) published a study in the journal Science which suggests that a parasitic mite, known as Varroa, may have destroyed bee colonies across the world by incubating and spreading a potent virus. Similarly, a joint study by universities in Italy and the UK also concluded that the role of parasites, such as Varroa, may have been under-evaluated by the scientific community.

Syngenta is engaged in research to develop a solution to protect bees against Varroa as well as investing more than €5million over the past 10 years in Operation Pollinator – a project backed by leading scientific institutions to cultivate habitat and nutrition for bees alongside crops.

The author is Chief Operating Officer of Syngenta

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