The UK ministers attempting to block a Europe-wide suspension of the neonicotinoid insecticides increasingly linked to serious harm in bees are heading for a crashing defeat. That is the only conclusion I can draw having been given an insight into the arguments they are deploying by Prof Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser to environment secretary Owen Paterson.
"It is very finely balanced – there is no doubt about this at all," Boyd said. He gamely argued that the "balance of scientific evidence suggests [a ban] is not proportionate" and that a financial cost-benefit analysis indicated a ban would cause significant economic damage. Yet in almost the same breath he acknowledged that a definitive test of neonicotinoids has yet to done, over two decades after their first use, and that the data does not exist to do a proper cost-benefit analysis.
No wonder the UK finds itself, with Germany, isolated among the EU's major nations. France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands – all major farming nations – all back the Commission's proposed suspension of neonicotinoids on flowering crops like oil seed rape.
This tale is complex and involves science, economics and politics, so let's take them in turn. Boyd assessed the balance of scientific evidence by comparing three semi-field studies showing harm (there are more) with five field studies, suggesting no harm (refs 1-8 here). He raised questions about the doses used in the former studies, but you should note that all three were published in the world's most prestigious peer-reviewed journals, Science and Nature.
Of the five opposing studies, one was the government's own catastrophic research where the supposed control hives suffered serious neonic contamination. That's not surprising, given that neonics are the most widely used insecticides in the world but I will be surprised if the work ever passes peer review.
"It is extremely difficult to have a control in a landscape where neonicotinoids are widely used," said Boyd, highlighting the very problem a suspension would solve.
Another of the five studies Boyd cites was done by a contract research organisation and also remains unpublished in a journal or even online. The three remaining studies do appear in second or third rank journals, but even then one was funded by the German agrochemical industry.
To me, the balance of quality research points clearly to unacceptable harm, the same conclusion reached by the independent experts at the European Food Safety Agency. Boyd did criticise the chemical companies making the neonics for not publishing their own data: "I believe all those data should be open access, everyone should be able to see them. There are issues of intellectual property and commercial confidentiality but I don't think they are insurmountable."
He also criticised the lack testing for bee harm over the last 20 years of neonic use: "I don't think it is acceptable. We should have been testing for these kinds of effects right from the beginning." However, when asked whether there were any upcoming studies that could tilt the fine balance one way or the other, he said: "I don't know of one in the pipeline that is going to address the question we need addressed." That makes a mockery of Paterson's repeated plea to wait for more research before taking any action.
Boyd was also revealing on how the cost-benefit analysis appears to be at the heart of the UK government's opposition to a ban. I'll quote him at length: "If neonics are having an effect on bees, it may be a relatively small effect, [but] the question in my mind is: is that effect on pollination balanced off by the costs it would incur if we banned neonicotinoids?" That's a reasonable question - if short-term economic impact is the measure you value over long term environmental health.
But even this argument crumbled in Boyd's very next sentence: "The cost-benefit analysis is a very difficult analysis to do, in fact we really don't have full data to be able to do analysis like that. But it does suggest the cost-benefit trade off at the moment is weighted towards retaining neonicotinoids, because if you just cast this in purely financial terms then you move in the direction of having a significant financial cost associated with taking neonicotinoids out of the system." Particularly striking in terms of the lacking data was Boyd's admission that there is "no information at all" on the changing state of overall insect pollination. So how that is dealt with in the cost-benefit analysis?
Despite not having the full data to do the cost-benefit analysis, the UK government has concluded that the financial cost of a neonic ban are likely to be too great. Again, I am not surprised at this given that Paterson's over-riding instruction from prime minister David Cameron is to grow the economy. Why take even a theoretical risk?
Given the uncertainties, and the fact that as Boyd put it "there are many definitions of the precautionary principle", the outcome of the proposal to suspend neonics will in the end come down to the politics.
"The science goes so far and then the policy and political people pick that up and they assimilate a whole range of different views, some of which are evidence based and some of which are not so evidence based, and they will come to their own conclusions that suit their own particular circumstances," said Boyd. "It is very finely balanced. You can very easily get some people or countries sitting one side of the line, and some sitting the other side of the line and some sitting right on the line."
Given that the same science is available to all EU countries, that all the big countries that dominate EU voting have significant farming sectors and that public pressure for a neonic ban is high in all countries, what are the other factors that have put the UK and Germany on the other side of the line from France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands?
I genuinely have no idea. But I am finding it harder and harder to ignore the coincidence that the dominant manufacturers of neonicotinoids are Bayer, based in Germany, and Syngenta, which has a major UK presence.
Note: In the first version of this blog I said Syngenta was based in the UK. It is in fact a Swiss company, but has a major UK presence having been formed by the merger of Swiss and UK companies.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010