We Could Learn From Europe
Americans, particularly on the right of the political spectrum, like to make fun of Europe. But here’s one more example that makes me wish we were more European on this side of the Atlantic.
The problem: Scientists have been worrying about, and pondering, the collapse of bee populations. There is reasonable suspicion (but not conclusive proof) that the collapse is related to a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. So, what to do?
Here’s Europe’s response:
The European Union, for its part, is now moving to ban a certain class of pesticides, neonicotinoids, as a precautionary measure:
The European Commission will enact a two-year ban on a class of pesticides thought to be harming global bee populations, the European Union’s health commissioner said Monday. …
Mr. Borg made the announcement after representatives of the 27 E.U. member states failed for the second time in two months to reach a binding agreement on a proposal to ban the pesticides, known as neonicotinoids. The commission had proposed the ban after the European Food Safety Authority recommended in January that use of the pesticides be restricted until scientists determined whether they were contributing to a die-off in bee colonies.
Recent studies have found that neonicotinoids can adversely affect bee health, though there are still doubters. (One key question is whether lab results in this area are applicable to the real world.) Here’s how an overview in Nature puts it: “a growing body of research suggests that sublethal exposure to the pesticides in nectar and pollen may be harming bees too — by disrupting their ability to gather pollen, return to their hives and reproduce.” But other scientists insist “there is insufficient evidence to implicate these compounds.”
Even so, the European Commission is putting in place a two-year ban so that officials can review the evidence on the topic and “take into account relevant scientific and technical developments.”
The US, in contrast, is waffling around:
A big new report (pdf) out Thursday from the Agriculture Department and the Environmental Protection Agency argued there were a wide variety of reasons for the disappearance of U.S. honeybees since 2006. Neonicotinoids are only one possible factor.
Here’s the summary:
–Consensus is building that a complex set of stressors and pathogens is associated with [colony collapse disorder], and researchers are increasingly using multi-factorial approaches to studying causes of colony losses.
–The parasitic mite Varroa destructor remains the single most detrimental pest of honey bees, and is closely associated with overwintering colony declines
–Multiple virus species have been associated with [colony collapse disorder].
–The bacterial disease European foulbrood is being detected more often in the U.S. and may be linked to colony loss.
–Nutrition has a major impact on individual bee and colony longevity.
–Acute and sublethal effects of pesticides on honey bees have been increasingly documented, and are a primary concern. Further tier 2 (semi-field conditions) and tier 3 (field conditions) research is required to establish the risks associated with pesticide exposure to U.S. honey bee declines in general.
The report emphasized the fact that the contribution of pesticides still needs further study: “It is not clear, based on current research, whether pesticide exposure is a major factor associated with U.S. honey bee health declines in general, or specifically affects production of honey or delivery of pollination services.”
As such, U.S. regulators aren’t ready to ban pesticides the way Europe just did. The EPA is slowly conducting a review on the topic that “should be completed in five years.”
Five years? So what sort of shape will bee colonies be in if five years of study finally tags neonics as the cause of colony collapse? It’s hard to imagine a more clear example of how public policy in the US tilts toward corporate interests at the expense of common sense, the planet, and the public interest.
In fact, I’ve never understood why, when it comes to chemicals, that the burden of proof is on those who suspect a chemical might be dangerous. Wouldn’t it make more sense to require that companies that want to use chemicals and pesticides prove that they are safe before they are used?
I’m with Europe on this one.