Pesticides and pollinators. Is it possible to ever use these two words together without a mass debate ensuing? On a rudimentary level it appears that only two groups are involved in this debate, and it seems as if they are on polar ends of the “saving the pollinator” spectrum. The scenario is often illustrated as the proponents of bee health lobbying for certain pesticides to be banned because it has been shown in some laboratory tests to be hazardous or it has been banned elsewhere, while the pesticide industry refuses to take their products off the market due to a lack of evidence of the so-called risk of their products.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that and this picture does not cover the entire story.
We have been hearing stories about a bee-apocalypse for many years, notably in Europe since the 1990s and, to some extent, with cases of so-called “colony collapse disorder (CCD)” in the US since 2006. It makes a great headline. It is unfortunate that the facts get lost amid the controversy. The European Commission’s own report on National Apiculture Programs in the European Union shows a steady increase in the number of beehives from 11 million in 2004 to 17 million in 2018. Bee colonies die off over winter, sometimes losses are as much as 20%, and numerous other factors including weather conditions, parasites and diseases can also play a role.
So how then does one go about getting the facts straight? The answer lies in the simple, yet significant concept of context. Let us use the example of agricultural remedies collectively known as neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids (or “neonics”) and pollinators have been getting a lot of attention lately as recent reports have shown neonics to be harmful to beneficial insects. There are plenty of considerations that contribute to showing why context is important in this regard, however for the purpose of this article, we will focus on only three of these. The first is to put the research environment into context, second the concept of hazard versus risk and thirdly, to examine regulations and the agricultural environment.
Let’s start off with the research environment. Numerous laboratory studies have shown that neonics can cause various adverse effects upon bees under particular conditions. But how relevant are those conditions in real life? In fact, there are no studies that show such negative impacts of sub-lethal effects of correctly applied neonicotinoids on honeybee colonies under field-realistic exposure conditions. For scientists to draw conclusions or extrapolate results from laboratory exposure studies and assuming they reflect behaviour following field use, or not testing their hypotheses of toxicity in field conditions, is not scientifically plausible. It would be the same as saying, for instance, in these laboratory tests it was shown that bleach is highly toxic to humans, therefore, the use of bleach kills humans. Some would even go as far as saying the bleach industry is making millions by selling bleach that kills humans. See the difference? This example nicely leads us to the next consideration, namely hazard versus risk.
The difference between hazard and risk is that hazard refers to the possibility of something causing harm while risk is the probability of harm occurring. Imagine sitting in front of the fireplace on a cold, rainy evening, enjoying a bottle of your favourite red wine. Sorry to burst your bubble, but alcohol is a class 1 carcinogen, similar to arsenic, making it a hazard. However, it only becomes a risk if you regularly guzzle down litres of the stuff, or if you become intoxicated and do something stupid. A car is a hazard, driving it like a formula one racer in an urban area is a risk. Standing on the edge of a cliff is a hazard, jumping off it is a risk. The issue of pesticides in the South African context, as well as the regulation thereof, is based on a risk approach, and not a hazard approach. Which brings us to our last point.
Although a pesticide is categorised as hazardous, it does not mean its use should be banned. If it’s been proven safe in local assessments and does not pose a non-manageable risk to human health and the environment, which includes pollinators, then farmers should be able to use the products to effectively manage pests. The European Union recently placed heavy restrictions on some neonics so that they cannot be used outdoors. The basis for these restrictions was the application of a “Bee Guidance Document” which has yet to be ratified by EU Member States, some seven years after it was first drafted by EFSA (the European Food Safety Authority). This Guidance Document is now being revised, not least because it places conditions on field trials that cannot be met, meaning that field trials that have been done over many years to EPPO standards, are not accepted. Even when applying such a conservative Guidance, EFSA did not find any unacceptable risks to honeybees after examining hundreds of different use scenarios for some of the neonics they assessed. However, the political pressure in the EU was so high that the Commission adopted a very precautionary approach and imposed the near-total ban. Regulators in other regions, including US, Canada, Australia, and Brazil continue to apply a risk-based approach and apply restrictions only in cases where safe use of the products cannot be ensured.
In conclusion, it is important to understand that there are many factors impacting bee health, including diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, and mites, poor nutrition, adverse climatic conditions, lack of genetic diversity and lineage, incorrectly applied veterinary treatments, poor beekeeping management and of course, irresponsible use of pesticides (emphasis on irresponsible). Isolating one specific factor as the main cause of the decline in bee health is just implausible.
It’s understandable that many people want to find a scapegoat for the stories that bees are in danger, it would make finding a solution so much easier and pesticides are an easy target. But real life is a bit more complicated than that and we all need to work together to ensure the safety of our pollinators. And, before jumping to any conspiracy theory conclusions, it might help to remember that for agriculture to continue, we need pollinators, and no one is more aware of this than the farmers and the pesticide manufacturers. It is in all our interests to protect pollinators, not to put them at risk. No one, no matter which country, region or industry they are in, wants to go hungry.