Time to Decide on Neonicotinoids: A Letter to European Commissioner Andriukaitis

See the French translation

Dear Dr Andriukaitis,

I am writing to request that you show leadership this week on the precautionary ban of neonicotinoids (and the “save-the-bees” issue). As the head of the European Commission Health Directorate (DG Santé), you are the chief risk manager to make decisions for the European Union. As a doctor, you are trained to make decisions in the interest of the health of the patient. You are the one person who can intervene on this issue. As you know, there are certain times that are better to act than others and this week is such a time.

I understand that you belong to a Commission whose chief strategy seems to be expedience (the art of making issues go away). That is not leadership and in the case of the previous Commission’s decision to ban three essential and benign insecticides (known as neonicotinoids or neonics), this problem will not go away. You are also a smart person who saw the challenge of the situation enough to keep an ace up your sleeve. It is time to play that card.

Before discussing that solution, here is what we know:

  • The precautionary ban on three neonicotinoids was rushed through by the previous activist-driven DG Sanco in record time (two months);
  • They had driven EFSA to develop a Bee Guidance Document (for how bee risk assessments should be conducted) that had deep conflicts of interest – I have shown how EFSA’s Bee Risk Assessment Working Group was captured by three anti-pesticide activist scientists);
  • Because the conditions and demands of the proposed Bee Guidance Document were so severe (actually, ridiculously impossible), the European Council has refused to approve it (on multiple occasions) – four years later, it remains invalid;
  • Because the European Union acted to ban the three pesticides without a legal basis, Syngenta and Bayer took the European Commission to court;
  • That case will begin this week and it looks likely that the European Commission will lose, face a humiliation and be forced to pay damages to the two companies;
  • These damages might be justified if the result would be saving the bees, however, there is clear evidence (from the Commission’s own research) that honeybee health is not at risk, that field studies on neonicotinoids show little to no effect on bee health and that there is insufficient evidence of risks to wild bees and other pollinators;
  • Farmers are suffering economic losses, lower yields and higher labour costs as they are being forced to use older, more toxic and less environmentally friendly solutions to replace the three state of the art insecticides;
  • Farmers are also choosing to plant less pollen-rich crops like sunflowers and oilseed rape given the precautionary ban on neonicotinoids. This will have adverse effects on pollinator health that I suspect your predecessors had not intended;
  • Given the weaker alternatives, I have learnt from farming authorities in the UK that the cabbage stem flea beetle is growing so strong in some regions that even if neonicotinoids are allowed back onto the market, the pests may have grown so strong as to have become “out of control”. This is clearly not what your Directorate General has been charged with delivering to the European public.

Challenges to reasonable action

It would make perfectly good sense for you to retract the 2013 draft Bee Guidance Document. I suspect Dr Url, the Executive Director of EFSA, would be very happy with that decision. It might also lead to an out-of-court settlement with the two companies about win the court case against the ban. You have clear grounds to take such a decision: the Bee Guidance Document was never approved by the European Council (for good reason); EFSA has learnt that their expert advisory working group had conflicts of interest which they had hidden from the authority; and the previous DG Sanco had several directors that had been found to be too close to anti-pesticide activist campaigners. It is your duty to clean up this situation and restore credibility to your DG.

722352388
Former DG Sanco director responsible for Bee Health, Eric Poudelet. He left you a mess to clean up!

Retracting the Bee Guidance Document does not need European Council or Parliament decision – it was never accepted so will not need their consideration. It needs, simply put, your signature! And with that, EFSA would be able to consider all existing research and field trial results on neonicotinoids. From that, EFSA would then be able to provide more scientifically responsible advice to your more scientifically responsible Bee Health unit. All you need to do is retract the conflicted draft Bee Guidance Document.

So why don’t you?

I understand that the original precautionary ban on neonics was due to internal French political pressures (in order for the French government to get support from the ecologists they pushed the European Commission to act). That government administration is on the way out and there has been a recent decision in the French courts declaring there was no link between neonicotinoids and bee deaths (keep that in mind for the Commission’s own court case!). The main political (non-scientific) pressure to maintain the ban is dissipating. I’m sure you will not miss Ségolène Royal’s phone calls!

The NGOs have also made a good business out of the bees, whether from a public they have terrified into donating, the organic food industry lobby or those who will benefit from alternatives to neonicotinoids. I understand they are putting extreme pressure on you and your staff and have threatened to go nuclear on you should you lift the neonic ban. I understand they can be persistent and loud, but also very wrong.

liar-liar
SumOfUs asking for funds for the court costs of the defence of the European Commission

 

If you are to side with the activists, to any degree, I want to you to consider the company you will keep.

 

On neonicotinoids, the activist Save-the-Bees campaigns have been full-frontal-fraudulent. They continue to claim that the bees are dying out due to pesticides (with no evidence), they are presenting an alternative to farming that will have serious consequences on food security and they are quite simply extorting donations with open lies at your expense. For example, the activist group, SumOfUs, has been asking for donations for a “Bee Defender legal team” in order to defeat the pesticide companies in the courts and preserve the EU ban. In other words, they are asking for public donations pretending to cover your legal team’s expenses. Do you really want to listen to, let alone, side with such opportunistic liars who are exploiting you?

If you retract the draft Bee Guidance Document, you can give the NGOs six months to provide scientific evidence to prove that neonics are responsible for the decline in bee populations (which they’ll also have to provide evidence that bee declines are taking place). At the same time, the farmers need an immediate derogation as you sort out the regulatory mess – farmers have suffered far too much from the games of your predecessors.

The Ace up your Sleeve

Dr Andriukaitis, you did something quite clever back in April 2015. In responding to a Parliamentary question on the negative effects on European farmers from the precautionary ban on neonicotinoids, you replied:

“The restrictions imposed at EU level by Regulation (EU) No 485/2013(1) for the neonicotinoids … was at no time based on a direct link on bee mortality.”

Now I agree with you, as does your chief Bee Health director, Michael Flüh, who even publicly stated that the only reason the Commission went so far as to ban neonicotinoids is to be able to look busy on the issue. The main reasons for any potential decline in pollinator health (climate, biodiversity, land-use, diseases and pests) were far too difficult for regulators to address but pesticides was one area the European Commission could be seen to be acting (even if everyone knew it was pointless).

Well, No! The farmers might have a thing or two to say about this “look busy” solution and I and many others have argued passionately that their interests need to be taken into consideration. You were aware of that possibility when you came into office and stated further:

“The Commission was informed on losses in some crops and in some areas; however there is not sufficient information available at this stage to allow a robust and comprehensive analysis.”

So since the neonic ban is not about bee health – everybody knows that – assuming that you would have clear data to show that farmers are suffering, crop health is suffering and the economy is suffering, you would then, I assume, have no other choice but to lift the precautionary ban (which is precautionary for some reason other than the risk to bees). But where would you get such reliable data? You continued in your reply to the European Parliament, planting an ace for further later use:

“The Commission’s Joint Research Centre is currently investigating ex post how EU farmers adapt their pest management and control practices after the neonicotinoid restrictions in 3 key crops and 7 countries. Eventually, the data collected via such a survey will allow for estimations on the productivity and economic impacts for farmers as well as an evaluation of alternatives applied by farmers belonging to the designed sample. This research is largely based on primary information and it is foreseen to produce results in the second half of 2016.”

Well, I have good news for you. The Joint Research Centre (JRC) has completed their study, presented it to you and to the European Parliament last month and is now preparing to publish its report. You stated in April 2015 that you will make your decision on the future of the neonicotinoid ban based on the “robust and comprehensive analysis” you now have from the JRC. The farmers have been patient for three years; the pesticide companies have been patient for three years; European consumers have been patient for three years; even the Risk-Monger has been patient for three years (well, not really, … I must confess I have been using more profanities). It is time now for you to act … no more excuses!

Time to Play that Ace!

So what did the JRC report on the impact of the precautionary neonicotinoid ban conclude?

On 11 January 2017, the JRC presented the main conclusions of the ex-post neonicotinoid study to the European Parliament. See the main conclusion slide.

jrc
Source: Joint Research Centre EU Science Hub

The findings of the JRC study clearly highlight the negative effects on farmers from the 2013 precautionary ban on neonicotinoids including increased use of older, less efficient pesticides like pyrethroids, more spraying of pesticides with increased costs and time. These non-seed-treated neonic applications have proven to be less effective with increased incidence of pests. In short, according to the JRC study commissioned by DG Santé, the temporary precautionary ban has not improved bee health but has lead to increased costs to farmers, risks to crops and damage to the environment. In other words, the EU’s precautionary neonicotinoid ban of 2013, according to the European Commission’s own research, was judged to be a failure.

In short, according to the JRC study commissioned by DG Santé, the temporary precautionary ban has not improved bee health but has lead to increased costs to farmers, risks to crops and damage to the environment. In other words, the EU’s precautionary neonicotinoid ban of 2013, according to the European Commission’s own research, was judged to be a failure.

As I know, Dr Andriukaitis, that you are an intelligent person, I know that in 2015 you planted that ace for a reason. I think this buys you the capacity to act and lift the woefully corrupted ban on a benign group of crop protection products. There will be consequences to your decision to retract the draft Bee Guidance Document and remove the precautionary ban on neonicontoids and this will demand courage and fortitude. But I know you understand that the consequences of not acting will be far greater to farmers, to the European Commission’s reputation, to European consumers and to your own credibility. I trust you will take the rational, correct route.

This is a good week for a leader to act! It’s time to play that card.

Yours sincerely

David

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