Bee Cautious or Be Smart?

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  • 04/15/2015

Ever heard of the Precautionary Principle? It’s basic premise is that you shouldn’t do anything new until you know everything about how it works or what it’s impact will be. Not a good theory on paper – and even worse in practice. For example, if you believe in this concept, you wouldn’t allow any new life-saving medicines on the market before you knew everything about how it would impact patient lives.

When it comes to science, innovation involves a careful balancing of benefits and risks based on the best possible scientific information. And it should not come at the cost of doing harm to public health by slowing down the availability of new and better technologies.

Now consider the case of neonicotinoid pesticides (aka, “neonics”) and the health of honeybees. Neonics were introduced in the late 1990s without incident as a less toxic replacement for the mass spraying of organophosphate and pyrethroid pesticides, which are both known to kill bees and wildlife.

You’ve likely seen the hysterical headlines about the “Bee-pocalypse” caused by neonics. That’s not the Precautionary Principle – that’s a total misrepresentation of the scientific reality.

But bee deaths are nothing new. The current “crisis” prompting the EU’s reaction is an age-old problem in the bee world: unpredictable bee deaths. They’ve occurred periodically for more than a century. And it’s so easy to blame evil pesticides. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. As an article in Forbes commented, “Activists often coalesce around an issue and then come up with a simple but sometimes simplistic narrative to frame it. Strident opponents of modern agricultural technology initially blamed GMOs for bee deaths, and some still make that claim, although there is zero evidence to back it up. When that didn’t get traction, the focus switched to neonics.” Publications ranging from Mother Earth to Mother Jones jumped on the “ban neonics bandwagon.”

Alas – it’s not nice to try to pull a fast one on your mother. Here are the facts.

In December 2013, the European Commission banned the use of neonics, for two years. The moratorium (driven by the precautionary politics that today dominates so-called science-based regulation in Europe) took effect just as numerous new studies shed increasing doubt on the belief that neonics play a central role in bee health. Scientific American’s Francie Diep noted in a recent article sub-headlined “why colony collapse disorder is not that big a deal anymore,” North American honeybee colony numbers have been stable for years at about 2.5 million even as neonics usage became more widespread.

And a brand new study (published in the March 18, 2015 journal PLOS ONE), shows that neonics do not harm honey bees at real-world dosage levels. According to the paper, ““Everyone is pointing the finger at these insecticides. If you pull up a search on the Internet, that’s practically all anyone is talking about,” said Galen Dively, emeritus professor of entomology at UMD and lead author of the study. “This paper says no, it’s not the sole cause. It contributes, but there is a bigger picture.”

And the US Agriculture Department and the EPA convened a working group to address that very question. Their report concluded that neonics, while a contributor, were way down the list of possible causes.

"It seems that the White House is following the same path. Staffed by many environmentalist "true believers," the Obama administration has already implemented both product testing and labeling requirements for neonics before it's own Taskforce on Pollination completes its recommendations."

Alas, the EPA just announced a couple weeks ago that they’re halting new use approval on chemistries that have already been approved until new studies can be done, essentially a precautionary move.  The implications of moving to the precautionary principle doesn’t just mean new, innovative technologies don’t get approved, it means innovators may question their desire to pursue and invest in new technologies.  Embracing the Precautionary Principle has serious and deliterious implications for feeding a growing planet in a cheaper, safer, and more sustainable manner -- with no guarantee of improving pollinator health at all.

That’s just bee-ing and nothingness.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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