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Are UK Officials Ignoring Damning Evidence Against Bee-Harming Pesticides? One Scientist Says They've Had it All Wrong

Mar 26, 2015 08:14 PM EDT
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Unlike a great many other first-world environmental agencies, the UK's Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) remains fairly uncertain about neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides commonly called "neonics." Officials frequently cite one large-scale study in particular to argue that these chemicals are mostly harmless. Now, however, one researcher has set out to tell DEFRA that they've been wrongly interpreting that key study for the last two years.

Much like the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Fish and Wildlife Service decided just last year, the European Union decided in 2013 to enact restrictions of neonic use across its various nations, citing scientific findings stretching back to 2012 that revealed how the pesticides could be directly contributing to serious declines in bee populations - namely through colony collapse disorder (CCD) in honeybees.

At the time, the United Kingdom was one of only a few nations to vote against a proposal to see neonics banned from agricultural practices in Europe.

"Independent experts advised that there was a need for further experimental evidence on the issue of whether bees may face harmful exposure to neonicotinoids in field conditions," DEFRA explained on its government website.

This stance was supposedly prompted by a study conducted by investigators with the UK's Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA). A DEFRA  assessment of the results, published March 27, 2013, did agree that neonics can indeed have an adverse effect on honeybee hives.

"However, [the study] suggests that effects on bees do not occur under normal circumstances," the department reported. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : pixabay)

That's a conclusion that aligned with the opinion of FERA researchers who said bee hives "remained viable and productive in the presence of the neonicotinoid pesticides under [normal] field conditions," and has since led to the United Kingdom resisting further restrictions on neonic pesticide use.

Interestingly, according to Dave Goulson, an expert in biology at the University of Sussex, that assessment of the work is just flat-out wrong, and does not truly reflect what the study's data implies.

He recently reassessed the entire FERA study for himself, and found that "despite the conclusions that were originally drawn by FERA [investigators], their data appears to provide the first clear evidence that colonies of free-flying bumblebees exposed to neonicotinoids used as part of normal farming practice suffer significant impacts in terms of reduced colony growth and queen production."

"They find that 100% of the time there is a negative relationship between how much pesticides were found in the nest and how well the nest performed, and they go on to conclude that the study shows that there isn't a significant effect of pesticides on bee colonies," Goulson reiterated in an interview with UK paper, The Guardian.

"The conclusions they come to seem to be completely contrary to their own results section," he added. "It doesn't add up." (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Flickr: Callum Hampson)

Goulson is also quick to point out that the study was never published in a peer-reviewed journal, where biased and impartial parties alike could have torn into the work with critical abandon. His own assessment of the results, on the other hand, was published Tuesday (March 24) in the aptly named journal Peer J.

So what exactly happened here? Are we looking at a sign of governmental corruption? A scientific cover-up? Or was this a simple misunderstanding between scientists and policymakers?

That is likely to remain uncertain, but some good has already come from Goulson's work. When The Guardian contacted FERA about the reassessment, an unnamed spokesman was quick to side with Goulson, agreeing that UK officials seem to have been misinterpreting the research agency's conclusions for the last two years.

He explained that while FERA investigators were hesitant to conclusively say that neonics were harmful, the report "does not lead to the conclusion that they are benign."

DEFRA, however, is a bit slower to backpedal from its staunch stance against neonic restriction. Still, a spokeswoman for the department told Goulson that the new analysis would be considered by an independent advisory committee to ensure that their policies concerning the pesticides are "based on the best scientific evidence available."

I, for one, can't wait to hear what this committee has to say.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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