38 Degrees and neonics

I've been very disappointed to see 38 Degrees, a people-power campaigning organisation whose petitions I've often signed, going down the data-blind anti-corporate route that blights the likes of Avaaz. Straying from their typical social justice agendas, 38 Degrees have decided to direct their ire at the government for considering a repeal of the EU-wide ban on neonicotinoid pesticides that's been in effect in Europe for the last year.

The 38 Degrees anti-neonic campaign page simply says

Please don't allow any exemptions to the European ban on bee-killing pesticides (known as neonicotinoids). Our bees are too important.

Their campaign bulletin emails ramp up the rhetoric:

Our bees are in danger again. Toxic chemical companies are trying to get their banned pesticides back on UK fields. Yesterday an application was submitted to the government asking them to lift the ban on bee-killing chemicals for some crops planted this autumn.

The powerful pesticides which Europe banned last year are called neonicotinoids - and they pose a huge risk to bees. Last month an influential group of scientists concluded that these banned pesticides don’t just kill bees, they wreak "havoc" with other insects and plants in the countryside too.

We need to keep working together to protect our bees because we know how crucial bees are to life on earth. We've marched on Parliament, we’ve signed petitions, we've sent thousands of emails and we've challenged politicians face to face. We worked alongside campaigners from across Europe to get these killer pesticides banned.

Now, we need to pull out all the stops - again. A huge petition will make it clear to the environment minister that she still needs to protect our bees, not the toxic profits of bee-killing chemical companies.

This would be very worthy if it were true, but in fact the jury is out on the effects of neonics.

Globally the empirical correlation of honey bee colony-collapse disorder (CCD) with use of neonic pesticides is inconclusive -- several regions which don't use neonics at all have seen widespread CCD, and vice versa. And while high-concentration neonic dosages (typically very unrealistic ones) in lab trials have shown effects on bee behaviours and toxicity at extreme concentrations (they are pesticides, after all) the field effect is not yet understood. (See here (1) for pretty good coverage of the wider picture, and here (2) & here (3) for alternative views and hypotheses from entomologists.) It's an open scientific issue, and unlikely to have a magic bullet solution of the "we need to ban X" form.

The "precautionary" EU ban of the last year has also not necessarily helped bees -- as well as leading to crop (i.e. habitat) losses, it meant that farmers had to fall back to older, nastier pesticides which definitely have adverse effect on pollinators. And as for the anti-corporate angle, who do you think makes those older pesticides?

The April report from the European Academies Science Advisory Council is cited by 38 Degrees, but it's been criticised for overhyping the summary, compared to a more balanced treatment of the risk vs. benefit in the body of the document, read by roughly no-one (see here, particularly the comments which critique the article and EASAC report. It's probably worth mentioning here that those calling for an outright ban are hardly whiter than white, having engaged in the "Beegate" scandal where panel members connected to the Dutch Friends of the Earth and the organic/Steiner-linked Tridos Foundation decided in advance that they needed anti-neonic evidence, and then tried to get a research programme and PR programme in place to push that agenda. Exactly the sort of thing that they like to accuse big evil corporations of doing.

You would hardly guess this from 38 Degrees' portrayal, so one can hardly blame the 250,000 people who have signed the petition: what fraction of them had any information on the issue other than what 38 Degrees told them? If a government department engaged in this level of cherry-picking, 38 Degrees would immediately be all over them with a campaign about ideological bias and being in thrall to Big NGO. I don't love multinationals, but where they go wrong it is not simply because they are large but because they suppress and abuse evidence; there is actually less of that than people think, and anti-neonic campaigners like FoE and 38 Degrees bring themselves down to the level of their purported enemies when they present biased evidence like this.

So I'm disappointed that this organisation, whose campaign issues I usually agree with, has based a campaign on such a misleadingly black & white, "do the right thing" picture of a complex issue. People power has a lot of potential to do good, but when it's based on such simplistic and ideological memes it's clear that it also has a very dark side.

(Apologies for laziness: all links are to Genetic Literacy Project, which is an excellent aggregator of biotech articles of all points of view. They link through to the originals.)


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