A Free-Market Energy Blog

How NOT to Regulate Pesticides: EU, Canada Lessons for Trump (Part I)

By -- December 15, 2016

“No chemical can both be effective in controlling crop pests and at the same time pass the unrealistically stringent tests imposed by the EU’s BGRD. Catch-22! That’s why EU member nation governments have refused to approve the BGRD for three years.”

The past eight years provided abundant experience with unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats creating new policies, laws, science, and regulations on carbon-based and renewable energy, climate change, air and water pollution, and a host of other topics.

Favored technologies received preferential treatment; those they opposed were hyper-regulated, as they sought to fundamentally transform our economy, agriculture, and living standards.

The new Trump Administration is now taking shape, amid bountiful signals that it will not blindly accept or rubberstamp previous environmental prescriptions. Indeed, the President-Elect’s nominations are generating approvals from many quarters, but howls of outrage from displaced special interests.

The European Union and Canada are providing object lessons in how not to regulate. Trump officials might want to take notice – and deliberately avoid their practices, or malpractices.

For nearly a decade, manufactured controversies have raged around a relatively new (though two decades old) class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics. These advanced systemic crop protection products are absorbed into the plant itself and thus target only crop-destroying pests that suck or chew on crops, particularly during their tender early growth phases.

That minimizes impacts on beneficial insects – like bees, which play important crop-pollinating roles. Such insects receive minimal exposure and are thus unlikely to be harmed, in contrast to the effects when manmade or “organic” chemicals are sprayed or dusted on crops.

Anti-pesticide activists have long sought to blame neonics for honeybee health problems of recent years. In 2013, their well-funded advocacy campaigns played a major role in pushing the EU’s decision-making European Commission to impose a two-year ban on using neonicotinoids on bee-attractive crops.

Not surprisingly, those two years have come and gone with no sign that the Commission will reconsider its position, despite accumulating evidence that managed bee populations are not now and never were in any danger of collapse or extinction. That evidence includes the EU’s very own 2014 and 2015/16 EPILOBEE studies, as well as nearly a dozen large-scale field studies from around the world.

Eternal Regulatory Life

As Ronald Reagan famously quipped, the closest thing to eternal life is a federal agency or rule. Once made, regulations only expand; they almost never shrink.

Underscoring this, in early November, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) broadened its reach by releasing the “conclusion” that bees are also put at grave risk by neonic use on European crops that do not attract bees.

Predictably, the assessments either find that neonics somehow pose risks to bees or conclude that a risk to bees “cannot be excluded” – for virtually every previously unregulated crop on which the neonics Imidacloprid or Clothianadin are used: winter cereals, beets, potatoes, leafy vegetables, maize (corn), and sorghum. Moreover, it doesn’t matter whether the neonics are seed treatments, foliar sprays, or soil applications.

Only for forestry and nursery applications was an adverse conclusion avoided – because of insufficient data.

Why “predictably”? Because EFSA’s entire assessment of these crop protection products is based on criteria for which data can be accepted and deemed relevant (and which can be ignored), as laid out in EFSA’s ‘Bee Guidance Reference Document’ (BGRD) – devised in 2013. The trouble is, to borrow language from this year’s U.S. elections, the entire evaluation process was rigged!

No chemical can both be effective in controlling crop pests and at the same time pass the unrealistically stringent tests imposed by the EU’s BGRD. Catch-22!

That’s why EU member nation governments have refused to approve the BGRD for three years.

But, in the wacky world of EU regulations, the mere fact that member governments have repeatedly refused to approve a guidance document for assessing chemical risks to pollinators doesn’t prevent it from being used by unelected, unaccountable, un-removable Eurocrats to do precisely that: assess, estimate, or guess chemical risks to pollinators – as if the document actually had been approved.

Here are two examples of this Alice through the Looking Glass insanity.

Unworkable 3-tiered studies are mandated

The BGRD specifies a three-tier scheme for evaluating pesticides’ potential impact on bees. At the first tier, lab test thresholds of impact are set so low that no pesticide could pass them and still be effective. This more or less automatically forces the evaluation to more complex, costly, and time-consuming second and third tiers.

At the highest tier – full field testing – the guidance specifies spatial separation requirements between test fields and control fields, amid which bee hives would be set up for foraging. However, to maintain experimental integrity, the surrounding area required to be free of other pesticide-treated, bee-attractive crops mean field test areas must be some 448 square kilometers in size.

That’s more than four times the size of Paris, France! This makes it virtually impossible to satisfy these test requirements within any country in densely populated Europe.

(Would the pesticide-free zone requirement apply to organic crops treated with organic pesticides?)

Moreover, to pass the “no risk” test, evaluators must demonstrate, with statistically robust results, that the pesticide being tested doesn’t produce more than a 7 percent fluctuation in a beehive’s population. But natural fluctuations in bee populations in a hive are easily 15 percent. In fact, a cold snap can produce that kind of a drop in hive size. So can Varroa destructor mites and other bee diseases – as well as efforts by beekeepers to control diseases by applying chemicals to hives.

It is therefore a practical impossibility to show that beehive population variability greater than 7 percent was not due to neonic pesticide use on crops. Catch-22 again!

The best investigative data are excluded

The second effect of this rigged system is that the best data are excluded from consideration: large-scale field studies done under Good Laboratory Practices. Such studies – and there are nearly a dozen – consistently demonstrate that no observable adverse effects on honeybees result from field-realistic exposures to properly applied neonic pesticides.

Instead, applying the still-unapproved BGRD test standards forces the EU to rely chiefly on laboratory studies that other researchers have shown consistently overdose bees with pesticides. That brings anti-neonic EU regulators the adverse consequences they want, but under conditions that bees would never encounter in the real world.

Most astoundingly, despite this rigged regulatory framework, truly spectacular data are available to assess neonic risks to bees in Europe. They just can’t be considered under this rigged regulatory framework.

Recently, the journal Ecotoxicology published a series of five inter-related studies that reported the findings of a very large-scale 2013–14 northern Germany field study of three different types of bees: honey bees, bumble bees, and solitary red mason bees. All three were observed foraging in oilseed rape (akin to canola) fields treated with the neonic Clothianidin.

The studies were paid for by Bayer, mostly because European agencies generally do not fund any such studies (though they do give millions of Euros a year to environmentalist groups). But this meant anti-pesticide activists can immediately discount and discard study results, regardless of the studies’ scope, complexity, sophistication, scientific rigor, and transparency – and despite how often these important qualities are nearly absent in studies the activists routinely tout to confirm their preconceived positions.

Details of Bayer-funded studies

After making extensive, careful – and well documented – preparations for creating the test bee hives; after transporting, installing and monitoring the hives throughout the exposure phase of the study; and after monitoring and collecting data from the hives in the post-exposure phase – these elaborate, methodologically sophisticated studies reached several strikingly simple conclusions.

  • Honeybee colonies foraging in Clothianidin seed-treated oilseed rape did not show any detrimental symptoms, as compared with colonies foraging in Clothianidin-free oilseed rape. Development of colony strength, brood success, honey yield, and pathogen infection were not significantly affected by the Clothianidin seed-treatment during this study.”
  • “In summary, [Clothianidin]-dressed [i.e., treated] OSR [oilseed rape] did not cause any detrimental effects on the development or reproduction of bumble bee
  • “High reproductive output and low parasitization rates indicated that [Clothianidin]-dressed oilseed rape did not cause any detrimental effects on the development and reproduction of mason bees.”
  • [When Clothianidin residues were collected from honey bees confined in tunnel tests,] “Clothianidin concentrations in samples from [the treated] field were 1.3±0.9 μg/kg and 1.7±0.9 μg/kg in nectar and pollen respectively.”
  • [When Clothianidin was collected from free-flying honey bees, bumble bees, and mason bees in the field tests at the start of OSR flowering], “Clothianidin concentrations in samples from the [treated] sites were below the limit of quantification in most pollen and nectar samples collected by the bees and 1.4±0.5 μg/kg in honey taken from honey bee colonies.” [emphasis added]

(μg/kg or microgram per kilogram is generally equivalent to parts per billion, or ppb.)

Since these neonic residue levels are well below levels that have been shown to adversely affect bees – typically 5μg/kg, but in some studies as high as 20μg/kg – it is small wonder that this new set of large-scale field studies showed no adverse effects from neonics on the honey bees, bumble bees, and solitary mason bees that it studied.

Bees simply are not exposed to those higher levels under natural, real-world field conditions.

Solid studies – so naturally they are ignored

The trouble is, none of these elaborately constructed and well documented experimental results were considered by EFSA in reaching its latest conclusions on neonic risks to bees in crops that are not bee-attractive. Nor will the studies factor into – at least not directly – whatever the EU Commission decides to do about the now 3-year-old EU neonic ban for bee-attractive crops.

And it’s all because of a Guidance Document that EU member states never approved.

Of course, since these latest large-field study results don’t confirm the anti-pesticide agenda driven by activist advocates and their media allies, this article is probably the first that anyone outside the insecticide scientific community has heard about them.

Unfortunately, bad science and regulatory policy are not confined only to the other side of the Atlantic.  The new Trump administration need look no farther than our neighbor to the north, Canada, where HealthCanada has just imposed a phased-in ban on the first neonic pesticide to hit the market during the 1990s.


Paul Driessen, senior policy analyst for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), is author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power – Black Death and other books on the environment.


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