Richard North And Christopher Booker Wrong About Bees And Neonicotinoids

I have grave concerns about the EU, and would vote to leave.  Some people will no doubt find it odd when I say I believe the EU has failed bees and fails the environment (here is just one example) - but that's a matter for another blog.  Certainly, however, I know I am not alone as a free-thinking individual, who cares about wildlife, and is concerned about decimation of habitat in the UK due to building - because of population expansion (a few eco houses and solar panels simply will not halt the need for more housing, schools & hospitals, infrastructure etc to support them), and the dire state of fish stocks!  Quite a few of us believe that with correctly targeted pressure, we could do better ourselves, if the will is there to create positive change.

For now, however, I am more concerned about addressing badly informed EU-sceptic arguments to defend neonicotinoids. 

I refer to a blog post and newspaper article that appeared some time ago,  one by Christopher Booker for The Telegraph "Greens used EU cash to push for damaging pesticides ban (6th Dec 2014)", and one by Richard North: "Neonicotinoids And The Tyranny Of The Greens".

You can read both of these by copying and pasting this link into your browser:

An Investigation Into Richard North's Arguments

Since there is very strong overlap between the arguments used by Booker and North, I will address the more detailed piece by North.

Here, I address the main points, with quotes from the item in blue boxes below.

By the way, I have almost 10 years' experience in the pharmaceutical industry, and as such, I have a good idea about how industry works! 

The pharma industry receives much criticism, but the fact is, it has done much to clean up its act.  Meanwhile, I am frankly astonished at the appalling regulation of the agrochemicals industry. I would like to see the same level of rigorous regulation we get within health care, not mountains of paperwork using flawed research techniques, largely designed to hide the true effects of these toxins.

It seems to me that the same poison technologies are more or less recycled through the years, with slight tweaks.  Where is the genuine innovation to provide solutions which are safer and better, and where is the incentive for industry to provide them? 

Finally, when you consider the claims that agrochemical companies make within their patents and in their marketing literature, you really have to ask yourself how credible it is that these poisons are suitable for our eco-systems!  How gullible are we expected to be?

Years ago, manufacturers were allowed to send toxic fumes into the air, poisoning the very air we breathe.  Until, that is, we had the Clean Air Acts. Result?  Eventually, industry adapted, and the air is cleaner as a result.  The only difference I see right now, is that manufacturers are being allowed to sell their vile poison for use in or on the earth instead of the air, (some of which has a half life of 19 years!) and they are getting away with it. 

Reform is long overdue!

As you read the article, note the author is very much pedalling the agrochemical industry perspective.  However, increasingly, real farmers are becoming concerned - see item
right) written by a real farmer (who does
NOT farm organically) in 2016.

The farmer also proposes his solution and signals that farmers need help.

"The fertility of almost all our soil is in serious in decline.  Decades of relatively cheap nitrates, overuse of herbicides and insecticides and widespread monoculture, have left England significantly less fertile.....Only now, as the evidence mounts, have leading farmers begun to be concerned."

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Richard North: "Booker: neonicotinoids and the tyranny of the Greens"

"Booker records last week's revelation of a document showing that a campaign which last year pushed the EU into a damaging ban on certain insecticides was deliberately engineered, on the basis of highly questionable evidence, by a group of environmentally committed scientists working for a green pressure group, the International Union for Conservation in Nature (IUCN)."

  • This is wrong.  Firstly, it is a moratorium for use of 3 neonics and Fipronil (a similar acting systemic insecticide) on flowering crops only, and not a full ban.
  • The 'highly questionnable evidence' North refers to, is a synthesis of 1,121 published peer-reviewed studies spanning the last five years prior to publication, including industry-sponsored ones!  Funnily enough, the industry sponsored data tends to say there is no evidence neonics harm bees, but the independent data suggests otherwise.  Additionally, regulatory data from industry tends to be based around flawed study design, about which, North says nothing, but later in his article, North refers to a single UK government study to back up his argument. This Defra bumblebee study, however, does indeed constitute 'questionnable evidence',  being fundamentally flawed and not peer reviewed - more about that below.
  • How is this "a damaging ban"?  On what basis?  Certainly, there have been no negative effects on crop production since the moratorium - and is that not what we should be concerned with here? According to DEFRA:

    "The overall oilseed rape yield has increased by 25% to 3.7 tonnes per hectare following favourable weather conditions in 2014.“

    Funnily enough, a US government field study from multiple farms, raises doubt about the value of neonics to farmers and crops - see "What's the point of neonicotinoids?".
  • Secondly, it is simply wrong to state that the EU’s decision has come about due to the activities of the IUCN.  The EU decision to investigate the issue via EFSA, pre-dates the IUCN investigation.  The EFSA panel comprised many independent scientists and took months and months to complete.  The first report was published in 2012.  It had nothing to do with the IUCN.  This is actually how it happened: 

From the early 2000’s and prompted by beekeeper protests across Europe, there have been various levels of investigation, with scientific study, initiated by governments, such as France.  The French Ministries of Agriculture ordered a FIELD investigation by scientist, Bonmatin. Results highlighted the danger of neonics.

As sales of neonics increased throughout Europe, more and more problems with honey bee losses were reported – and in many cases, with NO Varroa present. However, neonics have been implicated in diseases, which should not surprise anyone, since Bayer acknowledge that their neonicotinoid imidacloprid  makes termites ( social colony insects) more susceptible to disease also.

In the UK, most of the awareness raising was done by independent volunteers such as myself, with NO financial incentive or gain from ANYWHERE.  I am not, nor have I ever been closely related to, nor occupied a position within any green lobby group whatsoever, and the same goes for the small group of individuals who spearheaded this whole campaign.

The charity, Buglife – not in receipt at that time of any special funding (from the EU fund or otherwise) compiled an assessment of the data available thus far, and published it in 2009 – i.e. prior to work by the IUCN and even general awareness of the issue.  They used the data to engage with UK government.  The responses from Owen Paterson were based on the advice of the DEFRA advisor of the time, (i.e. ‘Bee Scientist’ Helen Thompson - who subsequently went off to join her former DEFRA Chemical Regulations Directorate colleague, Peter Campbell at Syngenta).  Needless to say, the responses inadequately  addressed the issues raised within the Buglife report.   That's the same Helen Thompson, by the way, who:

  • produced the flawed bumblebee study North refers to earlier (that was not peer reviewed, was heavily criticised (e.g. there were no controls) and which she later removed her name from), - produced the lab tests to support Bayer's imidacloprid registration (a conflict of interest?  How can she then criticize the poison she has helped on its way to authorization?)
  • omitted to declare specific industry projects she became involved with whilst participating within EU bee health groups - yes, that's right, people such as Thompson were allowed to 'help out' with the EU investigation.
  • produced other appalling work, such as a joint paper with Bayer's Christian Maus, which oddly  concludes that separate testing of sub-lethal effects of pesticides on bees shouldn't be necessary, although it has been repeatedly shown that sub-lethal effects are indeed relevant to poisoning insects, and are referred to as a product benefit within BayerCropScience literature with regard to the control of termites.
  • who enjoyed a number of trips abroad with industry to attend EPPO "bee protection" meetings, courtesy of the UK tax payer.

Other independent scientists also looked into the issue without ANY vested interest funding from ANYWHERE including Tennekes, Girolami, Colin et al etc.  Later studies from the likes of UK scientist, Prof Goulson (who North implicates by association with the IUCN), conducted his study without any funds  AND in his spare time.

MPs and MEPs were contacted by members of the public, not ‘the Green Lobby’ - I know, because I was part of the group who instigated it.  As a result, MEPs of different political alliances, lobbied for an investigation into neonics by EFSA. Independently, the UK Environment Audit Committee also conducted its own investigation - again, nothing to do with the IUCN.  They advocated a moratorium on neonics, and withdrawal for amateur use.

"The point, of course, is that bringing a new pesticide to market is expensive – each different product costing about £150 million – of which about £90 million is absorbed in the development phase, much of it spent in obtaining "market authorisation" under Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009."

Well cry me a river! That is one of the costs of entry to a market that is worth billions in sales! 

In 2012, Syngenta’s seed care sales increased and exceeded 1.1 billion USD – that’s just one company – one year sales.  

And yet, look at the technology, and tell me where the real innovations are?

Even now, the Agro industry are working not on producing a really innovative solution, but instead they are working on next generation neonicotinoids (no doubt they will try to call them something else) - I suspect, a very minor tweak in the grand scheme of things.

Whether or not we could regulate better and more cost effectively in Britain on our own however, is a valid question, and this is what NGOs should be lobbying for - transparent and better regulation (note 'more' regulation is not the same as 'strong' regulation!).  In any case, the emphasis of regulation should be on protecting public and environment! 

But, that is a cost of entry to any market, and it is what regulations are for, otherwise there is no point in having them.  I certainly do not want companies to be able to throw any chemical they like around the countryside!

"The ban on the use of neonicotinoids in December last year, therefore, has been very costly to the chemical giants that produced them, but it has also done huge damage to agriculture all over Europe. An official EU report estimates the cost to British farmers alone at £630 million."

  • As regard ‘damage to agriculture’, this is wrong, which I expand upon below, but in the meantime; with regard to EU crops:

“The 2014/2015 cereal marketing year closes with record exports and stock replenishment supported by a best ever production. Next harvest expected to be also above average”.    From:

  • On the one hand Richard North earlier accused IUCN scientists of having an agenda,  practically implying they wilfully followed instruction to conduct dodgy science on the instruction of a green lobby group (shown above to be false).
    And yet he fails to point out that the ‘EU Official Report’ he refers to, is actually the HFFA (Humboldt), and it is not an ‘independent EU body’ at all.

    The HFFA is little more than an industry lobby group, funded, overseen, and managed by those with a direct vested interest – i.e. members of the agro-chemical industry.

    All of this information is (at the time of writing) very visible on the HFFA website.  Far from being an EU report, to me it looks more like a piece of propaganda, with tissue paper thin, unsubstantiated arguments – that is the report Richard North is shamefully supporting. 
  • On the other hand, how many of the 1121 scientific papers interrogated by the IUCN did Richard North actually read?
    It looks to me like he read none of them - perhaps, due to his tissue-paper thin investigation, he was not even aware of them.  This means, for me, that I cannot trust anything Richard North says in any of his arguments (anywhere else on his website either, for that matter).

"When the Commission accordingly proposed its ban, few questioned it more strongly than the chief scientific adviser to the UK's Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which was why opposition to it in Brussels was led by his minister Owen Paterson. Defra's own field trials had shown no damage to bees, whereas the IUCN relied only on highly artificial laboratory experiments."

  • The field trial (not trials) Richard North refers to - from Helen Thompson and her team - mentioned above - was shamefully flawed (no controls etc).
    It was trashed by independent scientists, and a damming critique of it was peer reviewed, and was published. However, a later trial by DEFRA - and not involving Thompson, found that residues of neonics remain in the soil years after first application, confirming the ‘persistence in soil’ characteristic of neonics admitted to by the agro-industry, and thus confirming the potential of these chemicals to build in the soil to unacceptable levels.
  • It is a complete myth that the IUCN data relied on lab studies - many were field studies.  However, not once did Helen Thompson nor her industry friends adequately justify why lab tests should not form part of the mix (especially given that Thompson conducted lab tests for Bayer).  But I suppose the problem with lab tests is that they enable conditions to be controlled, and causes more effectively alienated.  Unlike the flawed regulatory field tests, which are allowed to be conducted on tiny strips of land surrounded by alternative forage areas in the immediate vicinity, and are extremely short in duration (such that the longer term colony effects are not noted) - among other astonishing flawed methods that pass for "research" within the current EU regulatory system.

"Paterson had no firmer ally than his Hungarian counterpart, whose own scientists had shown that, despite extensive use of neonics on two million hectares of oil seed rape, maize and sunflowers, honey yields had not fallen at all."

Really?  Reliable, corrupt-free  data coming from Hungary, and nothing but corrupt nonsense from hundreds of independent, global papers coupled with corrupt ‘honey decline’ data coming from the French and corrupt ‘up to 53% colony losses data’ from England!  Does that really sound plausible?

  • Honey bee colony losses in England 2012 -13 by the way, were as high as 53% - overall increase in bee colonies is simply because of the upsurge in beekeeping and more beekeepers keeping more bees in order to hedge against colony losses.
  • In the 2000s, in the UK, many beekeepers, incidentally, left the BBKA in objection to the BBKA board covertly accepting funds from the pesticide industry, with some members of the BBKA board having a disconcertingly close relationship, according to the feelings of some beekeepers.  (More recently, a survey of British beekeepers indicated that they overwhelmingly unhappy that the BBKA had failed to support a ban on neonics and wanted to be allowed a fair vote on the issue).

"But the IUCN's "science" carried the day, with the result that across Britain, farmers have been reporting the loss of up to 30 percent or more of their oil seed rape crop."

  • This is wrong.  The EFSA (not IUCN) ruling carried the day. 
  • And again, where on earth does Richard North get this data regarding oil seed rape loss? 


“The provisional oilseed rape harvest has shown an increase of 17% to 2.5 million tonnes for 2014.  This increase in production has been a result of both an increased planted area and an increase in yield of winter sown oilseed rape by 6.3% and 20% respectively. 

The reduction in the overall planted area of oilseed rape comes mainly from the fall in the planted area of spring sown oilseed rape in England from 92 thousand hectares in 2013 to 13 thousand hectares in 2014.  The overall oilseed rape yield has increased by 25% to 3.7 tonnes per hectare following favourable weather conditions in 2014.

And  the Home Grown Cereal Authority (hardly a ‘cave-dwelling green lobby’ body), state that UK oil seed rape yield decreased only by about 1.35% (and this was for a very small nu,ber of farmers), but yes, for the tiny numbers who experienced losses, those losses were high. They state that on a national level, the impact of flea beetle was, however, modest.

It's also worth considering oil seed rape yield prior to the ban (and the comparison with planting area over time is also interesting).

So in view of these small losses for 2014, we should surely ask ourselves, how unusual were these losses in any case?
What could those minority of farmers who experienced losses, learn from the more successful farmers?

"The irony is that one of the advantages of neonics was that they were much less environmentally damaging than the pesticides they replaced, such as organo-phosphates."

Richard North can’t have it both ways.  Either the regulatory system is fit for purpose, or it is not.

After all, does he mean to say that organo-phosphates, which are allowed by the regulatory system (and not having gone through a rigorous re-assessment) might be more dangerous than neonics? 

If organophosphates were environmentally damaging pesticides, why were they approved for use in the first place, and is this not an admission that the regulatory system is fundamentally flawed?

But let's just recap on neonics: 

But don't get me wrong, I'm not defending organophospates, and if they are more dangerous for bees than neonics, then I would recommend they are banned immediately.  I would happily see a reassessment of these chemicals too. 

But we could also start helping farmers by giving them independent information regarding pest levels, and the need (or not) to apply insecticides in the first place. 

.....And this is what Richard North would be advocating, if he were a real friend to farmers.

Farmers could save a huge amount of money if they only took action against "pests" when infestation actually warrants it, instead of "just in case". 

For example, research by ADAS (again, hardly a ‘green lobby’ group!) shows that for for the duration of the study, farmers unquestioningly applied insecticide for pollen beetle when levels of infestation did not justify it. 

When you consider this fact, and the very low levels of oil seed rape crop loss mentioned above, you really begin to wonder whether farmers are best served by agronomists (50% of whom are on commission courtesy of the agri-industry).

Above: in dark pink, % of pest infestation over threshold is shown to be tiny, yet in pale lilac it's shown that farmers blasted their crops with poisons anyway.

In healthcare pharmaceutical industry terms, this would be the equivalent of doctors being advised to prescribe medicines by sales advisors who are on commission.....and whether the patient needs the medication or not. 

And we all know how we feel about such practice!  Fortunately, in healthcare, there are so many hoops and hurdles, plus budgetry constraints, the incentive for doctors to prescribe medicine for no reason, is about non-existent.  However, in the farming industry, it seems to me that nobody is reassuring farmers that the money they are spending on these toxins, is NOT necessary.

"This is yet another example of the bizarre symbiosis the EU has established with green pressure groups, as it showers out hundreds of millions of euros a year for them to lobby it for the all-too often destructive policies they want."

It may be true that some environmental groups receive funding from the EU, and this may selfishly colour their perceptions of the EU (afterall, they have pensions to pay).  Personally, I am against charities receiving EU funding.  But it is not true that all NGOs receive such funding (Greenpeace and Buglife, at the time of writing, do not).

But anyway, this whole piece by Richard North is so misinformed, and certainly does not substantiate any idea that neonics should not be banned.

And my take on the EU is that it is an anti-democratic haven for fraudsters, parasitic bureaucrats, and big corporate lobbyists, and it looks like agri-business is about the biggest lobby group of them all, not environmental NGOs!:

"Among those who fell for the dubious science behind this particular ban was David Cameron. In their final tetchy interview last July he raised it as one of his chief reasons for sacking Mr Paterson: easily the best-informed and most effective Defra minister we've ever had."

No, I am an EU sceptic these days and like Paterson, I would vote to leave the EU tomorrow, but Mr Paterson decided not to be well-informed on this issue. 

Certainly he failed to answer the questions submitted to him by my MP and others, and failed to address and support the valid concerns of the UK EAC inquiry into this matter.

"Paterson himself referred to this country becoming a "museum of farming" if this Green tyranny continues. Already between 1995 and 2005, the cost of bringing a new pesticide to market has risen on average by 68.4 percent. Research costs have risen by 18.0 percent, but regulatory-related costs by 117.9 percent."

It is very important that regulation keeps pace with developments in industry, whatever the sector and whatever the cost - in the same way that healthcare pharmaceuticals must also be properly tested.

However, this comment from North focuses on the cost to industry, rather than looking at facts and figures from farming, and what is actually going on there.

Indeed, North's whole piece is so narrow in its "investigation" as stated previously, I would take every other item he has ever written, with a pinch of salt.

"The money is moving to the United States, Latin America and Asia, making the Greens a luxury we cannot afford."

Oh really?  Where is the evidence - since North provides none, and since already his investigation has proven to be so thin where facts are concerned?

But if it is moving, then is it going to areas where the agro-chemical industry can escape proper regulation?   Is that reassuring?

Personally, I am in favour of less toxic methods of protecting our crops.  Actually, there are small companies innovating in this area, whereas poor regulation does little to encourage those with big budgets to really innovate to provide better solutions to our problems.

In summary.....

I have grave concerns about UK membership of the EU.  Fish stocks, corruption, loss of sovereignty are all a real concern to me, and I owuld like ot see NGOs focusing their efforts for changes that can be made in the UK. 

I believe the EU has failed bees, because despite all the evidence, a full ban was not forthcoming, and no review or overhaul of the regulatory system has taken place. I also think that a UK ban on neonics would have been possible by now, because it would have been proposed by the UK Inquiry, and probably voted on – and we might just have got the ban through. 

However,  Dutch MPs voted unanimously to ban neonics, but felt they could not go beyond the EU moratorium.  I wonder if the Dutch government would have faced legal action from the Agrochemicals industry had it done so.

In the meantime, I would like farmers to be given better, independent information about ‘pest threats’ to prevent them being stitched up by agri-chemicals (a cost they must then pass on to consumers) and I would also like us to have a stronger regulatory system in Britain.  

Whilst I am disappointed that Liz Truss has recently agreed to allow neonics to be used on 5% of crops in England, I note she has felt unable to cede to the demands of the NFU and agri-chemicals to overturn the moratorium completely, despite the pressure I'm sure she must have come up against. This is why farmers must have independent information on crop 'pest threat' and agrochemical companies should not be allowed to sell and promote pesticides based on exaggerated claims of 'danger to crops'.

However, I think that ensuring farmers only applied chemicals in response to real threat, would go a long way in helping farmers and the environment, because it would demonstrate the truth, thus freeing them from profiteering and scaremongering opportunists who would have them unnecessarily apply poisons to their land, and at great cost.   


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