Bees, pesticides and the importance of the precautionary principle

By: Glenis Willmott. British Labour MEP for the East Midlands
Published: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - 12:30 GMT Jump to Comments

Bee numbers have seen dramatic decline all over the world and in the UK bee populations have fallen by 30% since 2007, writes British Labour MEP Glenis Willmott.

Scientists have struggled to find an explanation for this worrying trend, but we do know that if bees continue to disappear at this alarming rate, the consequences will be huge.

Bees and other pollinating insects are vital for the pollination of crops. Without them, flowers, plants and crops would not be able to reproduce and we would soon find ourselves unable to grow the food we need to survive.

In January 2013, extensive research by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) showed a link between the use of certain pesticides and bee health. The three pesticides in question - Imidacloprid, Thiamethoxim and Clothianidin - are neonicotinoids. These systemic insecticides are taken up by the whole plant, including the pollen and nectar, and work by affecting the central nervous system of insects, causing paralysis and death. 

They have long been suspected of being harmful to bees and research suggests they affect bee brain function, leading to impairment of learning, memory and spatial orientation. This would have a severe impact on bees' ability to forage. EFSA concluded that these neonicotinoids pose a high acute risk to honeybee health and recommended that they should not be used on flowering crops that are attractive to honeybees.

wrote to the European Commission in 2011 about the potential risks of neonicotinoids to bees and was told that there was not enough evidence to act. So I was pleased earlier this year when the Commission proposed a two-year restriction on the use of these three pesticides.

The UK Government led the opposition to the neonicotinoid ban on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to support it. They called for any decisions to be delayed until the results of their own field tests were known, despite the fact that their own Chief Scientist, Ian Boyd, has questioned the validity of these field tests and several other experts have criticised the study design.

Furthermore, reports later suggested that the Government had been heavily lobbied by the pesticide industry.

Industry tried everything to block the proposed ban, first arguing that there was no evidence to support it and then that it would lead to higher food costs as farmers have to turn to alternative forms of pest control.

However, France has restricted the use of neonicotinoids for several years, while the Co-op stopped using them on flowering crops in 2009. The French have not faced food shortages and neither have food prices shot up.

More importantly, there are alternatives to using these pesticides - diversifying crop rotations or encouraging natural pest enemies for example - whereas there is no alternative for the vital pollination work that bees do. Around 75% of crops rely on bees for pollination, and those crops make up 90% of the global food supply. The pesticide industry may argue that neonicotinoids contribute €2bn annually to crop revenues across the EU, but compare that to the €22bn a year that the European Commission estimates bees contribute to our ecosystem.

As the Director-General of the World Organisation for Animal Health has said, "Bees contribute to global food security, and their extinction would represent a terrible biological disaster."

Ultimately, this was the position the European Commission took too. When member states couldn't reach an agreement, the Commission decided to go ahead with the ban. I fully support this decision - we clearly cannot risk our future food security and the world's fragile ecosystem because of the vested interests of a handful of large companies.

In May this year, EFSA also reported that another insecticide - Fipronil - poses a high acute risk to honeybees. No action has been proposed yet, but given that this is the same risk assessment as that for neonicotinoids, there is obviously a case for proposing similar restrictions.

At the heart of all this is the precautionary principle. This is the idea that where there is evidence to suggest a high level of risk, measures should be taken to reduce that risk while more data is gathered. It's a principle that should be the basis of all EU science policy. 

A European Environment Agency report published in January this year, Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation, highlighted how EU policy has often failed to take preventative action even where the early warning signs were there.

The report looks at numerous cases - such as the use of lead in petrol and the dangers of climate change due to carbon emissions - where early evidence of possible harm was ignored and it took years for public policy to catch up with the science.  

It also points out that the argument against the precautionary principle - the fear of 'false positives' - is misplaced as there have been very few genuine instances of this. More often we see cases of 'mistaken false positives' and it gives as an example the strategies employed by the tobacco industry to downplay the growing evidence of the harm caused by second hand smoke.

The precautionary principle is important as it can be much harder to reverse negative effects if we don't act quickly. It also gives vested industries a chance to secure a foothold, meaning that later proposals to limit harm face fiercer resistance.

In the case of bees, it may well turn out that a combination of factors is to blame for their disappearance, such as habitat loss, disease and climate change. However, with the evidence increasingly pointing to heavy pesticide use, it would be hugely irresponsible for us to ignore this evidence and do nothing until it is too late.

Ms Willmott is the British Labour MEP for the East Midlands and has been a Member of the Group of Socialists and Democrats since 2006. She was elected as Leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party in January 2009 and re-elected to the post following the European elections in June 2009. In the European Parliament she is a full member of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committee, and co-chair of the Parliament's Health Working Group. She led for her political group on the Food Labelling Regulation and focuses a lot of her work on the prevention of non communicable diseases.  Ms Willmott has a Higher National Certificate (HNC) in medical science, specialising first in clinical chemistry and then in haematology.

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