The crisis of dramatic bee population decline has been a top issue in media and political debate in Europe. A wide variety of culprits are under scrutiny, including certain parasites, viruses, pesticides and industrial agriculture. But new scientific evidence from British and French research institutions, published in Science in early 2012, suggests that neonicotinoids pesticides in particular might be one of the main drivers. Syngenta and Bayer, two companies producing these substances, are waging an all-out lobbying war against the proposed partial ban of these substances by the European Commission following EFSA’s (European Food Safetey Authority) opinion warning of the risk they pose to bees. Will the pesticide lobby succeed in convincing Member States to vote no to a ban?
New scientific evidence triggers EU concern
Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides that came onto the market in the mid 1990s and early 2000s. Many crops such as corn, soy, wheat or rapeseed are now treated with them. They are normally applied directly to seeds or in soil treatments, in an attempt to preserve seeds and plants from insect attacks at an early stage. As systemic pesticides, once in the seed, they enter the whole plant through its vascular system and are found in every plant tissue (leaves, flowers, pollen...); but they can also remain active in the soil for a long time (up to three years). Particularly controversial among the neonicotinoids are Thiametoxam, Imidacloprid and Clothianidin, substances patented by biotech and pesticide companies Syngenta and Bayer.
The French scientific study reported the loss of honeybee foragers caused by exposure to low doses of Thiamethoxam (Syngenta). The British study reported that low doses of Imidacloprid (Bayer) affected the colonies of bumblebees, reducing their development and their reproduction, including a dramatic loss of queens. Authors stated that, “given the scale of use of neonicotinoids, we suggest that they may be having a considerable negative impact on wild bumble bee populations across the developed world.”
In March 2012 the European Commission mandated the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to deliver a scientific opinion on a report that led Italy to temporarily suspend the placing on the market of maize seeds treated with neonicotinoids. In April 2012 the Commission broadened its request to include the new scientific evidence published in Science. In addition to Italy, Slovenia and Germany had already applied protective measures, including temporary suspensions or bans in certain uses of neonicotinoids.
A furious lobbying campaign
In June 2012, the French Government announced its intention to withdraw the registration of Thiamethoxam. The pesticides industry immediately started putting pressure on the Commission. This was the beginning of a furious lobbying campaign; a series of letters sent by Syngenta, Bayer and the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA, the pesticides producers’ lobby whose members include Bayer, Monsanto, BASF, Dow, and DuPont / Syngenta) to the European Commission and EFSA, seen by CEO, have enabled us to reconstruct its story. Here are the main arguments used by these two companies:
It’s farmers’ fault. Bayer, in a letter addressed to Commissioner Dalli, claims that past incidents of pesticide poisoning that affected honey bees were the result of inappropriate use and/or lack of precaution in applying the substance, thus they offload responsibility onto farmers rather than the product itself.
Just a small group of activists and hobby beekeepers. Syngenta made the accusation that some Member States, “driven by a small group of activists and hobby beekeepers” are lobbying to suspend, “their insecticide and all other neonicotinoids. And they urged the Commissioner to “resist this pressure” for the sake of the credibility of the EU’s regulatory process.
Me and my friend Obama. Syngenta’s CEO, Michael Mack, personally wrote to Commissioner Dalli to remind him that just two weeks before he had lunched at the G-8 summit with US President Obama, President of the European Council Van Rompuy, President of the European Commission Barroso and France’s President Hollande, discussing the contribution of the private sector to global food security and the money Syngenta was committed to spend in Africa.
Keep calm, and use neonicotinoids. In another letter sent in November to Commissioners Ciolos (Agriculture) and Geoghegan-Quinn (Research) in November, and to all EU Agriculture Ministers, Syngenta called for a comprehensive review, that they insisted was necessary to avoid “wrong conclusions from a rushed process that could have disastrous implications for agriculture and ironically for bee health”. This, added to the fact that it was only three neonicotinoids (including Syngenta’s Thiamethoxam) being singled out, was “desperately disappointing” for Syngenta.
“Independent” analysis show that Europe can’t survive without neonicotinoids. According to Syngenta, who didn’t provide any references to back up the claim, “the loss of this technology will cost farmers and consumers up to €1 billion and undermine the production of safe and affordable food”. In a letter they sent in November they stated that according to “independent analysis” there would be significant damage to European agriculture if their product was banned (more than €17 bn over the next five years) as well as the risk of relocation of corn production. In addition, ECPA claims potential yield losses of up to 10% in oilseed rape and cereals, 30% in sugarbeet and 50% in maize as a result of a potential ban.
Another study promoted by industry was research carried by the Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture, that concluded that neonicotinoid pesticides make a significant socio-econonomic and environmental contribution to European agriculture and the wider economy. The support and partners of this Institute include BASF, Bayer CropScience, E.ON, KWS and Nestlé. The study was supported by Copa-Cogeca (the big farmers’ lobby group in Brussels), the European Seeds Association (mainly representing the largest companies in the seed industry) and the European Crop Protection Association, and financed by Bayer and Syngenta. This, however, was not mentioned in Syngenta and Bayer’s letters.
‘Science’ is on my side. For decades, industry’s strategy has been to advocate for a science-based policy. But which science exactly? This particular lobbying campaign provides helpful insights into the sort of science industry favours, and the sort it doesn’t.
Firstly, a comment can be made about the role of EFSA. Industry usually pushes for decisions to be made by scientists and experts rather than politicians, the latter having to justify themselves in front of voters; it was therefore not a surprise to read the pesticides lobby ECPA write to the Commission that “as an industry, we welcome the fact that EFSA is carrying out a detailed evaluation on the use of these seed treatments”. In the meantime, they lobbied the European Commission with scientific studies backing their commercial interests: Bayer explained to the Commission that neonicotinoids were not responsible for bee decline as other experts maintained that pathogens and parasites were the main problem. Meanwhile, Syngenta questioned the conditions in which the studies with critical findings were performed, claiming that the exposure in these studies significantly exceeded any real situation found in the field. According to them, France was taking decisions in the absence of “any validated science”. The company also delivered to the Commission a costly GLP (Good Laboratory Practice)-compliant study on bees exposed to corn treated with thiamethoxam it had sent to the private analysis lab Eurofins. This study concluded that “no effect in terms of mortality, honeybee activity and brood development and behaviour of the honeybees” could be observed1.
However, EFSA’s opinion,published on 16th January, was not the one the companies had hoped for: it was very critical of the use of these pesticides, although the agency was not able to finalise the assessments in some cases due to shortcomings in the available data (remember: EFSA usually doesn’t do any research and merely assesses others’ work). EFSA and its scientific experts found risks to bees associated with neonicotinoids pesticide exposures from pollen and nectar contaminated with pesticide, from pesticide dust, and from exposure from guttation (plants exudating drops of sap on the tips or edges of their leaves).
Bayer immediately counter-attacked: they commissioned another analysis of EFSA’s conclusion by “an independent panel of bee scientists”: in fact, the company Exponent®, which specialises in defending products from regulation. Exponent® came to the conclusion that “EFSA risk assessments use unrealistic exposure values, make inappropriate comparisons to toxicity threshold levels, fail to consider critical bee behaviour, and inappropriately discount monitoring and field studies”, and therefore “overstates the risks to honey bees”. Exponent®’s modus operandi is reanalysis of scientific studies detrimental to industry to cast doubt on their conclusions in order to prevent their use for regulatory purposes, but their production, tailored for litigation, has been described as “more legal pleadings than scientific papers”.2
You don’t like my science? You will hear from my lawyers. Syngenta had access to EFSA’s press release before its publication. They immediately sent an extremely aggressive letter to the agency, claiming that the press release was “incorrect in a major and highly relevant aspect but EFSA also moves out of its area of responsibility and mandate”. Syngenta even threatened to take legal action and set a deadline: “we ask you to formally confirm that you will rectify the press release by 11 o’clock. Otherwise you will appreciate that we will consider our legal options.”
Syngenta’s anger increased when the press release was published without major changes. In several letters to EFSA they insisted that the press release is “inaccurate and contrary to the EFSA conclusion”. And the company requested access to documents such as all the draft versions of the press release, internal correspondence and the preparatory meeting notes that led to the draft.
After analysing the documents provided by EFSA, they then targeted EFSA’s Director, accusing her of not including Syngenta’s comments on the draft press release in harsh terms: “you took the personal responsibility to overrule the internal EFSA proposal to rectify the incorrect press release”. Therefore, “Syngenta would appreciate further explanations from you” before “deciding on the legal options available to it and the identity of specific defendants in any possible court action”.
Syngenta wanted to find culprits, and therefore requested more documents, including handwritten notes of internal EFSA meetings as well as all the correspondence regarding their attempts to change the draft press release.
Mr. Politician, please help me against these ignorant scientists. Threatening EFSA having proved ineffective, Syngenta and Bayer are now putting maximum pressure on the Commission and Member States, and publicly blaming EFSA. Syngenta for instance counterattacked that “EFSA has limited practical knowledge of agriculture” and that if this sort of risk assessment was repeated “it would be impossible to maintain the registration of any existing insecticides or to register any new ones”. According to Syngenta, the methodology used by EFSA to conduct the review was “questionable because it was based on a highly theoretical and extremely conservative scientific opinion”.
Beyond direct pressures to politicians, Syngenta launched a fierce campaign in various national media to avoid Members States approving the proposal, claiming for example in the UK media that EFSA had been “nobbled”. The pesticides association ECPA has also been really active, promoting the Humboldt Institute study in the European and national media and scaremongering the public with the prospect of disaster should the proposal be approved.
- I’ll solve the problem myself, no need to regulate. The two companies have launched a charm offensive to be seen as part of the solution rather than of the problem, and for this are launching an upgrade of Syngenta’s PR sting “Operation Pollinator”. This consists in paying a few farmers so that they grow flowers and other plants beneficial to bees on their farms. But how many farms exactly? No figures have been provided.
The battle for Member States’ vote
The battleground is now at the European Member State level. On 15th March, at the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, the European Commission put to the vote a proposal that would restrict for two years the use of Clothianidin, Imidacloprid and Thiametoxam to crops not attractive to bees and to winter cereals, starting 1st of July (meaning this year’s crops would not be affected). It would also prohibit the sale and use of these pesticides to “amateurs”. This proposal was limited and criticised by farmers group and beekeepers for not being ambitious enough, but still failed to reach a qualified majority. It was supported only by 13 member states (Slovenia, Sweden, Poland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Spain, Denmark, Cyprus, Belgium, Italy, Latvia and Malta), while nine countries (Slovakia, Romania, Czech Republic, Portugal, Austria, Hungary, Lithuania, Ireland and Greece) rejected the proposal. The UK, Germany, Finland, Bulgaria and Estonia abstained.
The proposal will be retabled by Commissioner Borg at the Appeal Committee in the coming weeks, with a vote likely to occur probably on the 26th of April or the 2nd of May. If Member States again fail to reach a qualified majority supporting the proposal, the Commission would have the power to approve it. Meanwhile, the pesticides industry is lobbying Member States hard to try to reach a qualified majority to reject the proposal outright and thus block the ban. The coming weeks’ battle will be crucial: will industry interests prevail against bees’ survival?
- 1. Thiamethoxam - Monitoring of Potential Effects of the Drilling of Thiamethoxam FS Treated Maize Seeds on Honeybees, Guttation Monitoring of Maize Seedlings under Agronomic Use Conditions and Assessment of the Relevance of Guttation for Honeybees in Alsace (France) - Final Report. 15 November 2012, Eurofins Agroscience Services EcoChem GmbH.
- 2. See “Doubt is their product”, D. Michaels, Oxford University Press, 2008, p.46.