Following a discussion started last year in the group on the subject of bees, Kelvin drew our attention to a new development in the analysis of what is going on with bee colonies. Over the last few years, beekeepers all over the world have been noticing a marked decline in bee colonies, including what has been termed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The cause or causes of this phenomenon have not been definitively discovered, however, there is a growing body of research that suggests that certain types of widely used commercial pesticides (known as neonicotinoids) may be at least partially responsible. The following film outlines the studies that have been done, and suggests some reasons why the growing body of evidence has as yet not resulted in more cautious behaviour from either industry or government bodies responsible for regulating the use of chemicals (here the Environmental Protection Agency).
It’s about bees, but it’s also about something bigger. It’s about the relationship between science and policy. What the interview subjects in the above film are suggesting is that the government body responsible for the regulation of chemicals allows for studies to be carried out by the industry producing the chemicals, allowing a very obvious bias into the process. This process in fact removes any impetus to find the products unsafe, particularly if any such evidence can be obscured. Since the policy is ‘innocent until proven guilty’ in the case of the pesticides, and the industries producing the pesticides are in charge of producing the evidence either of safety or dangerousness, the obvious impetus for industry is to simply obscure or discredit any studies that suggest a potential causal link between the pesticides and the harm (to bees in this case). They don’t have to prove it’s safe, all they have to do is effectively critique the studies of those trying to prove the causal relationship between the product and the harmful effects. This is an easy enough task because no experimental condition can be made to replicate the exact conditions in which the pesticides are used, so all experiments will be in some way only partially representative (see for example, DEFRA’s reasons for discrediting the studies: http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/quality/chemicals/pesticides/insecticides-bees/.) And secondly, in the non-experimental conditions of the actual use of pesticides, the disappearance of bees and CCD can be blamed on multiple causes or other causes, and the fact that there is no evidence to prove that allows industry and government to shift the blame without even pointing a finger. Cause unknown in this case means the pesticide producers can go ahead, assumed innocent until proven guilty, where the process of proving guilt is made extremely difficult.
Meanwhile, although the pesticides cannot be proven to be safe, because they can’t be proven to be necessarily the cause of the problem either, they continue to be allowed and are in very heavy and extensive use. If we were applying the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ idea to a person, where there was enough grounds to suspect a potential threat or danger (of massive public harm in this case), the usual procedure would be to hold the person away from that which they might harm until a thorough investigation is completed. In the case of the pesticides however, the investigation that needs to take place has not and is not taking place in the kind of impartial manner that it needs to be done in, and meanwhile the potentially harmful product is out there doing whatever damage it might be doing.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in the UK, claims to have assessed the evidence on the relationship of neonicotinoid pesticides and bees and to have deemed it inconclusive due to not exactly emulating field conditions (http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/quality/chemicals/pesticides/insecticides-bees/). Perhaps due to the public and media attention to the subject (for example: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/9257431/The-nerve-poison-harming-our-bees.html; and http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/no-ban-on-pesticides-that-threaten-bees-8114020.html) they also claim to be funding further studies looking into the exact relationships between the pesticides and bee colonies. One of their studies claims to be about the ‘normal’ levels of pesticide residue in bees, a depressing thought to begin with.
So, what are we left with. Well-meaning scientists are doing important work to try and produce research that is irrefutable, and to communicate this in such a way that it cannot be critiqued out of town. Meanwhile, the pesticide industry will no doubt be doing it’s best to attack the science and to produce other studies that meet its needs. For a comparable situation relating to the pharmaceuticals industry see the following report: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/sep/21/drugs-industry-scandal-ben-goldacre.
There are very obvious problems with the manufacturers of products being responsible for the research that proves the value, effectiveness, necessity and safety of those products. We like to think we have come a long way since the days of snake-oil peddling travelling salesmen, but have we really? We rely on government bodies to regulate industry and yet, such processes still fall so short of where we need to be. How do we start holding the government accountable for making possible and heeding independent research, even when the logical outcomes of that research mean that a lucrative and powerful industry will make less money? It’s a question that has bearing on not only whether the bees will continue to be, but whether and how our own lives and the lives of future generations will be.
*Update*: There is a petition on 38degrees related to this. Please sign and share: https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/ban-the-pesticides-that-are-harming-our-bees#petition