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  • Activist Science Undermines Research on Honeybees and Pesticides

    December 15, 2014 11:27 AM

    As reported in a blog post by David Zaruk, some of the “science” on the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides on honeybees appears to have resulted from a pre-orchestrated campaign, rather than an unbiased scientific process. The researchers involved are members of the International Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, which is part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

    The task force was ostensibly set up “to bring together through research an integrated assessment of the worldwide impact of systemic pesticides on biodiversity and ecosystems, based on articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.” But Zaruk explains that he discovered a document indicating that the effort was more political than scientific.

    The document summarizes a workshop held at the University of Paris back in 2010 at which task force members outlined a strategy designed to make the case that neonicotinoids do in fact harm bees—drawing that conclusion before completing an unbiased, scientific assessment. To that end, it appears that they planned out where they would place studies condemning the chemicals to gain political impact, rather than exploring how they would critically review the body of research.

    IUCN is in fact an activist group, so their desire to undermine chemicals is not all that surprising.  But this case does show how activism has permeated scientific research, confusing the world about the state of science on many issues. While we all have opinions, there needs to be a clearly defined line between policy goals and scientific research. 

    As Zaruk notes: “[N]o credible scientist starts with a campaign strategy and then conjures up some evidence as an afterthought to fit his or her activist agenda. That is not science!”

    Indeed, legitimate scientific discovery requires that researchers try to keep their biases in check, rather than plan studies and placements to garner a desired political objective. In fact, researchers are supposed to begin with a hypothesis and conduct experiments aimed at disproving that hypothesis. So researchers do not leap to conclusions too quickly, scientists are trained to search extensively for reasons to reject their hypotheses. That means that rather than try to prove their theory, they act as a sort of devil’s advocate, attempting to show no effect. In that case, biases may be kept in check and positive associations should be more robust.

  • New Field Study Confirms Neonicotinoids Have Little Impact on Honeybees

    November 24, 2014 9:58 AM

    As the Ontario provincial government in Canada considers policies that may force farmers to stop using, or drastically reduce use of, a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, a new study shows why such policies are unlikely to do any good. Supposedly, limiting use of these pesticides will improve honeybee hive health, but such regulations will simply make it harder for farmers to produce an affordable food supply.

    The study, which relies on data from actual field conditions, confirms that farmers can protect their crops using these chemicals without harming honeybee hives. Published in PeerJ, it assessed the impact of neonicotinoid-treated canola crops on hives that foraged among these crops in 2012. The researchers found no adverse impacts and very low exposure to the chemicals. The authors report:

    Overall, colonies were vigorous during and after the exposure period, and we found no effects of exposure to clothianidin seed-treated canola on any endpoint measures. Bees foraged heavily on the test fields during peak bloom and residue analysis indicated that honey bees were exposed to low levels (0.5–2 ppb) of clothianidin in pollen. Low levels of clothianidin were detected in a few pollen samples collected toward the end of the bloom from control hives, illustrating the difficulty of conducting a perfectly controlled field study with free-ranging honey bees in agricultural landscapes. Overwintering success did not differ significantly between treatment and control hives, and was similar to overwintering colony loss rates reported for the winter of 2012–2013 for beekeepers in Ontario and Canada. Our results suggest that exposure to canola grown from seed treated with clothianidin poses low risk to honey bees.

    Despite all the media hype about how these chemicals harm honeybees, these findings are not surprising.  Research condemning these chemicals has tended to focus on lab studies that overdose bees to see if pesticides affect hive health. But those studies have little relevance to real-life exposure to these chemicals in the field. The U.S. Agricultural Research Service’s Kim Kaplan explains that such studies have “relied on large, unrealistic doses and gave bees no other choice for pollen, and therefore did not reflect risk to honey bees under real world conditions.”

  • Green Exploitation of the Monarch Butterfly

    October 20, 2014 9:52 AM

    Butterflies offer powerful imagery for environmental groups looking to advance their agendas. After all, who doesn’t want to save these beautiful creatures? Surely green activists could leverage those desires to advance voluntary efforts to create butterfly habitat. But the actions of some groups indicates that they would rather exploit the butterflies to gain policy victories in Washington, even if the butterflies suffer as a result.

    Conservationists rightly point out that monarch butterflies face challenges associated with habitat loss because there are not enough of the type of plants that they need for food and reproduction. In particular, these creatures feed and reproduce among milkweed, a flower that many people consider to be nothing more than an undesirable weed. As a result, farmers, homeowners, and other property owners have removed these plants, leaving less habitat for the butterflies. 

    Part of the solution is rather simple: educate people about the value of this plant. If we can transform what people think about it, we might just get more individuals to plant it rather than pull it up. 

    A massive educational campaign pushed by environmental groups, which collectively have tens of millions of dollars at their disposal, could make the critical difference. Some groups are working this angle, but too many others would rather spend the money to lobby for more government controls on businesses and property owners.

    The green lobby’s agenda includes suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to prevent approval of a new herbicide formulation because they say it will enable more destruction of milkweeds. They are also calling for the listing of the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It may be counterintuitive, but both actions may actually undermine butterfly habitat and contribute to its demise.

  • Honeybee Population in Decline—Or Not?

    August 13, 2014 4:14 PM

    If you read the news about honeybee survival, it’s all very confusing. Some sources sound the alarm by pointing out that the number of honeybee hives has dropped significantly in recent decades. Others say just the opposite: There are more hives today than ever before.

    Which is it? Actually, both.  Some regions of the world have fewer hives, while globally there are more commercial hives now than there were in 1960. The key here is to understand which dataset is more important to the debate about sustaining these helpful creatures.

    The Hoover Institution’s Dr. Henry Miller notes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “The reality is that honeybee populations are not declining. According to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization statistics, the world's honeybee population rose to 80 million colonies in 2011 from 50 million in 1960.” Meanwhile Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council responds in a letter to the editor: “The number of managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. has dropped from four million hives in 1970 to 2.5 million today, according to White House statistics.”

    Surprisingly, both of these claims are correct. Miller points to the “global” commercial honeybee-hive count, which has grown considerably. Sass points to domestic colony numbers only, which have in fact declined.

    Miller’s numbers are more relevant because if honeybee survival is really at stake, we would see declines on a global scale. Miller also points out that U.S. and European hive numbers are relatively stable, and Canadian numbers increased. Miller is certainly correct to point out that honeybees are not about to disappear.

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