Thursday, January 17, 2013

Colony Collapse Disorder, Neonics, and The Precautionary Principle

Over the past decade, the strange mystery of declining bee populations and colony collapse disorder (CCD) have justifiably received a ton of media attention. There's plenty of resources out there for more background on what researchers are thinking, and why it matters if you need it. I'd suggest starting with this excellent post by Hannah Nordhaus for Boing Boing, written shortly after a batch of studies were published identifying a specific group of insecticides called neonicotinoids (aka neonics) as a potential primary cause of CCD. I don't really have much to add to the discussion beyond that article, but I'm particularly drawn to this issue because the the precautionary principle is now front and center, and the debate has thus far largely avoided the type of hyperbole and fear-mongering that only serve to distract evidence-based policy. This post is less about trying to being informative as it is me being hopeful that a discussion pops up in the comments.

Earlier this week, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that the evidence suggests use of neonics constitute an unacceptable risk to honeybees, essentially laying the groundwork for an EU-wide ban. As outlined in the Nordhaus post, the study that most clearly linked neonics with CCD has been harshly criticized, certainly by Bayer, the largest manufacturer of neonics, but also by some independent scientists particularly troubled by what they see as unrealistically high doses given to the bees. Glancing at the study it didn't appear that the doses were completely without merit, but it's pretty apparent that the EFSA is operating on the premise that the potential risks of using neonics is worse than any possible benefit to farmers in the EU, as opposed to documented risks supported by large amounts of evidence that has been systematically reviewed.

Normally, I don't find the precautionary principle very compelling, and clearly the U.S. government doesn't either. I think oftentimes potential risks are over-hyped, while real benefits are not fully considered or outright dismissed. It could be used to halt or delay literally any technological advance, and yeah...slippery slope. However, in this case I find myself being a bit more sympathetic to it than I usually am. I really don't know what to think about it. Pointing the finger at synthetic chemicals designed to kill insects obviously seems particularly intuitive, but equally obvious is that our intuition sometimes leads us astray by oversimplifying a complex phenomenon. The UK's Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs recently took the skeptical view reflected by Nordhaus. The department commissioned another long-term study to look at the direct sub-lethal effects on bees, as well as asking researchers in the UK to prioritize this issue, after which they will take another look at some point this year. It's not like they said there's nothing to look at here. I'm tempted to think that this is perfectly acceptable.

Banning neonics isn't going to force farmers in the EU to just abandon insecticides. The alternative chemicals do in fact have much stronger evidence of genuine, tangible, and imminent environmental risks than neonics do. What do you think? How much uncertainty should we tolerate? On what issues do you find the precautionary principle to be appropriate?

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