Why the Richard North's article on bees and neonicotinoids is misinformed and wrong

This page is a response to a misleading article about bees and neonicotinoids on a website called "EU Referendum" by Richard North, a shorter version of which was adapted by Christopher Booker and published in The Telegraph.

"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)."

  • Wrong, it is a moratorium on the use of 3 of the neonics and Fipronil (a similar acting systemic insecticide) on flowering crops only, and not a full ban.

  • The 'highly questionable 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! 

  • “Damaging ban”?  so what were the results?
    "The overall oilseed rape yield has increased by 25% to 3.7 tonnes per hectare following favourable weather conditions in 2014.” 

  • The EU decision to investigate the issue via EFSA, pre-dates the IUCN investigation, which is international, and has nothing to do with the EU or EFSA. 


"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."

  • Regulation is a cost of entry to any market, and it is what regulations are for, otherwise there is no point in having them!  I know - I used to work in the pharmaceutical industry - R&D and regulatory hurdles are the norm and are costly, but are necessary and for the greater good. 

  • Sane people would agree, companies should not be allowed to introduce poisons whatever the effects, and regardless of any damaging consequences. that is why regulations are necessary.
  • However, Syngenta can no doubt be pleased with their ROI.  In 2012, Syngenta’s seed care sales increased and exceeded 1.1 billion USD – that’s just one company – one year sales for seed care alone.  

"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."

  • The ‘EU Official Report’ Booker refers to, is actually the HFFA (Humboldt) which is an industry lobby group, funded, overseen, and managed by members of the agro-chemical industry.

"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.  A damming critique of it was peer reviewed, and was published.  The authors removed their names from versions held on government websites (although they are not entitled to anonymity).

  • Helen Thompson got her reward for her work regardless – she went off to work for Syngenta soon after releasing the report - joining her other former government civil servant colleague, Peter Campbell, formerly of the Chemical Regulations Directorate. 
  •  It is a complete myth that the IUCN data relied on lab studies - many were field studies – but note, Helen Thompson conducted lab tests for Bayer to support the marketing authorizations of their products.
  • The design of regulatory field tests have been influenced by industry via the EPPO and ICPBR (and perhaps corporate lobbying of the EU), and have not kept up with the pace of technology, and are fundamentally flawed. E.g. they may be conducted on tiny strips of land surrounded by alternative forage areas, are extremely short in duration (such that the longer term colony effects are not noted) etc.

"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?

  • Perhaps Richard is not aware that, outside of the BBKA board, British beekeepers are concerned about neonicotinoids.

"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."

  • From DEFRA:

    “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."

  • The Home Grown Cereal Authority (hardly a ‘cave-dwelling green lobby’ body) state that for the period, UK oil seed rape yield decreased only for a very small number of farmers, and by about 1.35%.  They state that on a national level, the impact of flea beetle was, however, modest.

"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?

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