Environmentalists Try to Squash a Bug Killer

Green groups blame a widely-used insecticide for bee ‘die-offs,’ but the evidence is weak.

In January, the European Commission advised the EU not to use neonicotinoids, a relatively new class of agricultural insecticides. Now the member countries are considering whether to ban the chemical. The Commission’s warning came after heavy pressure from environmentalists who cited concern about honeybees and other insects that pollinate important crops.

This is bad advice. The evidence against the insecticide is weak. Banning it would be at best premature and likely to do far more harm than good.

The new neonicotinoids are often applied directly to the seeds so that the chemical is contained within the growing plant, thereby protecting it from pests. Seed treatment allows for lower doses of insecticide than spraying.

And what about the bees? In recent years there appears to have been increased bee “die-offs” and disappearances of whole hives in the United States and EU countries. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety principally blame neonicotinoids, which have been used widely around the world for at least a decade.

But bee die-offs are not new. Bee colonies were also reported disappearing in the early part of the 20th century, long before modern insecticides. If neonicotinoids were causing die-offs, there should be more of them with the higher use of these insecticides—yet there aren’t.

For example, neonicotinoids are widely used in Australia, but there have been no reports of massive bee losses. But Australia does not have the varroa mite, a parasite that has long been the scourge of bees and beekeepers.

Peter Borst, a bee expert and research scientist at Cornell University, reports that almost all of Canada’s honey comes from the 300,000 beehives in the country’s canola fields. Canada is the world’s largest single producer of canola, a nutritionally rich crop for bees. Despite the fact that neonicotinoids are widely used in Canada and elsewhere used to protect canola from pests, Canadian bee populations have been largely unaffected and produce around 50 million pounds of canola honey.

There are healthy bee populations in countries that use neonicotinoids, and there are reports of die-offs in countries such as Switzerland, where neonicotinoids are not used. The reality is that bee die-offs may be caused by numerous factors, such as the varroa mite, other parasites and viruses.

If neonicotinoids are banned, farmers will have to use older insecticides such as organophosphates, which are potentially more harmful to the environment. These older insecticides have been banned in some countries. Without alternative or better means of pest control, crop yields would likely decrease. More land would be needed for agriculture, leaving less habitat for wildlife—including wild bees.

With such limited evidence, why do environmentalists go after neonicotinoids? Part of the reason is surely that insecticides are produced by large multinational companies that make them more inviting villains to pursue than the varroa mite.

Another reason is the traditional environmentalist hostility toward modern technology. In reality, the development of hybrid seeds, genetically modified crops and other technologies, such as insecticides, means that more food is produced than ever before, on less land, to feed the world’s growing population. According to Indur Goklany, a science and technology analyst for the U.S. Interior Department, the average daily food supply per capita rose globally by 323 kilocalories between 1975 and 2002—and about half of the increase has been due to improvements in technology.

The decades-long protests against DDT, the first modern insecticide, relied on shoddy science and deprived millions of a safe and effective weapon against malaria. Campaigns against insecticides have dampened research and development and raised the cost of bringing a new insecticide to market. The danger with these campaigns, including the one against neonicotinoids, is that the pipeline of new products will dwindle, making food production ever more difficult.

Activists may romanticize the life of farmers before the advent of science-based technologies in the 20th century. But there is nothing romantic about malnutrition, something the world is beating precisely because of innovation.

Mr. Tren is director of Africa Fighting Malaria, a nonprofit.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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