What a sad, sorry state we see for science in the European Union!
We are now in a situation where a European scientific advisory authority (EFSA) is being forced to base its advice on a scientifically worthless document and has to resort to sending out coded messages pleading to the scientific community for help (or forgiveness).
In a recent press release on neonicotinoids, EFSA had to publish the advice they were told to produce: that there was not enough evidence to declare with certainty that neonicotinoids are not harmful to bees. This conclusion was baked into the European Commission’s original request for advice and EFSA chose its press release to acknowledge, in a coded manner, why they were not too pleased with the process thrust upon them.
Why would EFSA choose to mention (in the third paragraph of their press release) just one tool among many in their review methodology?
The Draft Bee Guidance Document
The draft Bee Guidance Document (BGD) has not been accepted into law by the Standing Committee, meaning that any decisions based on its use would not be legitimate.
Why, after five years, has the draft bee guidance document not been adopted?
The BGD set parameters that were impossible for field tests to comply with. It demanded an acceptable test mortality rate of 7%, far below the average 15% bee mortality rate under normal conditions. The BGD also set a minimum contiguous field test size – at least 168km² – that was much larger than possible to track bees… No field test data could comply, and without data, there was no way to be certain neonicotinoids were safe.
Furthermore, the BGD working group that had set these impossible parameters was infiltrated with anti-pesticide activist scientists with an agenda – with Poudelet in Sanco directing the process, the BGD was nothing else but corrupted and unscientific. EFSA is fully aware of the hidden conflicts of interest but seems unable to use this as a basis to review the entire BGD process. Perhaps if Arnold had worked for Monsanto rather than a bee NGO, things would have been different.
As readers of this blog may recall, I have shown repeatedly how the bee guidance document was not scientific and misused by anti-pesticides activists. It was designed to reject all credible field test data, not only for neonicotinoids, but for any pesticides, including those approved for organic farming. And with this fabricated block to any available field data, a precautionary approach was presented as the only possible conclusion.
Forcing the BGD on EFSA
The head of EFSA, Bernhard Url, has tried to wash his hands of the bee guidance document, but it seems stickier than that mythical insecticide-laden honey. See the clip in the European Parliament where Url exonerated EFSA and admits that he has no choice but to use the flawed bee guidance document. He admits someone in the Commission forced him to. Note that Dr Url did not defend the validity of the bee guidance document. I think it would be very hard for anyone to come to a legitimate defence of that miserable piece of activist science.
So EFSA was stuck in a frustrating position, where they had to answer an inappropriate question. Agencies and authorities work to serve the European policy process so when they receive a question that is politically-driven, they are not in a position to send it back and request a better question. So after wasting much time, EFSA’s press release answered the inappropriate question using the useless guidance document as instructed, but at least they could send out their coded plea for help.
The irony is that EFSA was very clear how their decision on the safety of glyphosate was based on all available data (while IARC restricted themselves), but with neonicotinoids, they have let their hands be tied by a politically-motivated guidance document that arbitrarily rejected any data that would show the insecticide’s safety. Wouldn’t it be nice if Dr Url stood up for scientific integrity in all cases and demanded a review of the rejected DRAFT bee guidance document. That would have to come as a request from the Commission though.
Junck-Science and Regulatory Failure
I wrote a paper last year showing how Juncker has imposed his interests on the policy process related to both glyphosate and neonicotinoid legislation arguing how it reflected a casual ignorance towards evidence. I called it Junck-science. What the blog did not cover was what policy tools have been quietly abandoned by this present Commission.
The anticipated banning of neonicotinoids will set a new high-water mark in European regulatory failure. I cut my teeth on responsible policymaking during the Delors period where certain regulation process standards were put in place to ensure legitimate policies were determined. Juncker has abandoned many of these accountability tools and has turned Brussels into a cesspool of influence, king-making and special interests. In the case of neonicotinoids, the following responsible regulatory tools were not used and we have ended up with yet another policy disaster that has destroyed trust in Brussels and fostered economic and trade uncertainty.
We no longer rely on evidence-based policy, impact assessments or inter-service consultations. Instead, Brussels now has its own Bismark, pulling strings from behind the sunken shadows of a weak, aging leader.
1. Evidence-based policy
One of the first acts of policy cowardice Juncker had committed was to silence the science, give in to pressure from the NGOs and remove Anne Glover’s post of Chief Scientific Adviser. From the start, Juncker was only going to listen to the advice of one man (and his interests weren’t very scientific). I can remember in 2005 when I was pushing for the creation of the Chief Scientific Adviser post (on behalf of Stanley Crossick’s EPC), I was given a harsh reception in DG Research. They felt only they were responsible for providing scientific advice.
Whatever happened to DG Research and the commitment to providing strong scientific evidence to support EU policymaking? The DG has been sliced and diced over the last decade to become a frame of its former self, neutered and neutral. The JRC has become its own DG and functions in the background with multiple strategies largely built around service contracts. Like the establishment of other research-based agencies before it, a good part of DG Research was funneled into the Research Executive Agency, tasked largely with managing the Horizon2020 budget. Besides Open Science and the recently added Innovation units, it is hard to see what is left to the EU’s commitment to evidence-based policy. How would the Commissioner for Research and Innovation have the means to stand up during a Monday Cabinet meeting and say: “Sorry Jean-Claude, but the science does not support your policy here!”?
2. Impact assessments
Where are the impact assessments?
During Delors’ time, impact assessments were standard starting points for policy. Many complained then that an impact assessment was a useful delaying tactic, however seeking external advice about the impacts of regulation seemed then to be have been a pretty good idea.
One of the more wicked side effects of the EU’s reliance on the precautionary principle is the belief that it replaced the need to perform impact assessments. “We are being cautious and responsible – what negative impacts could possibly come out of such a strategy?” The Revision of the Pesticides Directive (sorry, until this day, I still cannot bear to pronounce it by its official, hypocritical title) was conducted without the Commission feeling the need to conduct a single impact assessment. It was built on the belief, still prevalent today, that it was never a bad thing to ban a pesticide.
The precautionary restrictions on neonicotinoids was pushed through in 2013 within two months of EFSA’s BGD-based advice. There was no time to conduct a serious impact assessment (there was no time for consultation or thought). It should be noted that the European Commission did request the EU’s Joint Research Centre perform an (ex-post) impact assessment “study” on the consequences of its temporary ban of neonicotinoids. It just chose not to release it or listen to the clear conclusions on how the ban was a disaster to farmers, the environment and to bees.
Impact assessments might not tell us what we want to hear but given how EU regulators are unaccountable, we can consider them as unnecessary.
3. Inter-Service Consultation
The European Commission has many directorates with an interest in certain regulations suggesting they should participate in the policy process on behalf of their constituencies (the part of society they need to be accountable to). For example, REACH, the regulatory process to establish the safe use of chemicals, involved three DGs working together: the then DGs Environment, Sanco and Enterprise. REACH would have an influence on the environment, on public health and on business investment, so this inter-service approach was the responsible way to determine policy.
Today I cannot find any information on the Commission SecGen site on the inter-service consultation process and it seems that this approach has been abandoned in favour of more power coming from the Bismarkian top. Dialogue has been replaced by anonymous diktat.
In the case of neonicotinoids, DG Agriculture should be involved as it will affect how farmers can produce safe, quality food. DG Environment should be involved in the process since the older alternatives to neonics that farmers will be forced to use will have serious consequences on the environment and pollinator health. If the Commission does go forward and extend the neonic ban on all applications, including sugar beets and potatoes, then as farmers pull these crops out of their rotation, EU food manufacturers will be at a serious competitive disadvantage. Perhaps DG Industry might want to be consulted.
Instead, like glyphosate, only DG Santé has been involved in regulating neonics. Nobody else had a voice in the process – not the farmers, scientists, food manufacturers, consumers … not even the head of EFSA!
No accountability, no leadership
Brussels has become a dictatorship run by a king-maker in the shadows (who has now moved into the Secretariat-General … another shrewd move given how our weak President has adopted the position of lame duck far too early). The Better Regulation theme so loudly vaunted a few years back has become a hollow strategy led by a limping, hollow man. Pity given how Commissioner Timmermans had started out with so much hope. With no one listening to reason or taking responsibility, the decent leaders among the sock-puppets have resorted to planting coded messages within their press releases. Neonic policy in the EU is just the latest illustration of the failure of leadership in Brussels (and the crisis of confidence that is its logical consequence).
Whoever is running this ship now will ban neonicotinoids regardless of the science, regardless of the disastrous effects on farmers and consumers, regardless of the advice from the JRC on how the previous decisions had terrible consequences … Without dialogue, internal consultation or respect for process, is it any wonder Juncker has lost all credibility?
I personally do not regret exposing much of this nonsense that has become widely known as BeeGate. I do regret that we no longer have responsible journalists with the courage or integrity to follow up on this scandalous behaviour at the heart of the European Commission.
This is no way to be accountable to farmers, consumers and food manufacturers. This is no way for regulators to operate. I have not seen such a disgraceful situation since the Santer Commission (and we all know how that story ended).