Misconceptions about the physical and biological world can persist long after the science is settled. Benighted inventors regularly propose ways to obtain unlimited energy from perpetual motion machines that violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, for example, and a group called the Flat Earth Society insisted until at least 2001 that our planet was not round. The Luddites in the European Commission are in the same category when it comes to many innovative technologies, even when they represent important improvements over existing products or processes.
On April 27, for example, the "expert committee" of the member states of the European Union voted in favor of a permanent ban on the neonicotinoid insecticides ("neonics") that farmers love, but that activists' claim are causing a massive die-off world's honeybee population, otherwise known as the "bee-pocalypse."
Hinting of the outcome some days in advance, the European Commission's Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis, who had been lobbying for the ban for years, insisted that his position was completely neutral, based purely on science, and that political calculations had nothing to do with it. "We must rely on evidence," he said, "'not on fake news.'"
That statement is an example of what psychologists call projection — a person's defending himself against his own impulses or qualities by denying that he harbors them while accusing others of them. In fact, everything about the EU ban — a process that began more than five years ago in 2013 — has been political, and every rationale they have given for it has ignored the scientific evidence and relied on fake news.
From the fictitious bee-pocalypse itself — honeybee populations have been rising in Europe and around the world since neonics have been on the market — to repeated scandals involving manufactured evidence, rigged evaluations and attempts to suppress the work of its own scientists when their conclusions were inconvenient, the bureaucrats who run the EU have trudged purposefully toward this goal for the last five years.
Below is a kind of "highlights reel" of these scandals. Only the most egregious examples are included, as listing them all would read like the public policy equivalent of "War and Peace." It's worth noting the commission has not to my knowledge either denied or even tried to explain its role in these deceptions, although they have often tried to erase evidence of them from official websites.
The phony crisis. The sole reason for the temporary ban in 2013 was that honeybees supposedly were dying at an alarming rate and might become extinct. Invoking the "precautionary principle," which allows regulators to take radical action even when all the facts aren't in, the EU temporarily banned neonics while — they said — launching a series of initiatives to better understand the causes and extent of the crisis. In fact, there was no crisis, as the commission knew, or should have known, at the time: Each member nation keeps an annual tally of honeybee hives that clearly showed a rise of about a million hives in the EU as well as expanding numbers in the U.S., Canada, and worldwide since neonics came on the market in the mid-1990s.
Erasing evidence to the contrary. At the time of the ban, the commission was in possession of a voluminous report by Alberto Laddomada, the head of the Animal Health unit of DG Sanco, the EU's health agency, that completely undermined the case again neonics. The result of seven years of work across numerous government agencies, it itemized the numerous parasites and diseases plaguing honeybee colonies and interviewed beekeepers and bee scientists to ascertain the primary causes of bees' health problems. The findings could hardly have been more unambiguous: Of more than 100 beekeepers surveyed, only three thought pesticides an important cause of bee mortality. Of all the bee laboratories, only one pointed to pesticides. Soon after the ban, references to the report were removed from all official EU websites, but it remains archived in the Internet's "wayback machine" here.
Killing Epilobee. As part of the commission's promise to better understand the state of bee health, it launched an official survey of overwinter honeybee losses (many bees die normally during the winter months) called "Epilobee." But instead of a crisis, it found Europe's bee populations remarkably healthy. Losses for the first two years, which covered the last two winters that bees would have been affected by neonics before they were banned, were clearly manageable. In the second year, in fact, most losses registered in the single digits – normal by anyone's estimation – and even the highest country losses were well below the 18.9 percent U.S. beekeepers consider acceptable. Rather than hail the good news, the commission promptly terminated the survey.
Fabricating evidence. Barely a year after the ban, investigative blogger David Zaruk exposed a secret memo drafted by top brass at the "prestigious" International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and scientists on their "Task Force on Systemic Pesticides," detailing their plans to fabricate "four key research papers" as part of a "campaign" to get neonics banned. No objections were ever raised by the commission, which still cites "evidence" from these papers as part their case against neonics.
Spiking its own report. In 2017, the commission's Joint Research Center – which had been tasked with finding out how effective the ban was in helping honeybees – delivered a devastating report behind closed doors: The ban not only provided no benefit for honey bees, the report found, it forced farmers to spray with older, harsher pesticides, hiked the cost of production, and decreased crop yields. The commission refused to release the study — until science writer Matt Ridley discovered a leaked copy and exposed the scandal in the pages of the London Times.
Rigging the review. The biggest scandal of all, however, is that the regulatory basis on which the EU's assessment was made was obviously rigged to force neonics to fail. The regulatory gold standard for bee science are the large-scale field studies that reproduce as closely as possible how neonics affect bees in the real world. The problem for the commission was that these studies universally show honeybees are unaffected at the hive level by neonic-treated crops. If the commission wanted a ban, it was clear they had to somehow invalidate these studies and force regulators to rely instead on lab experiments that force-feed bees massive doses and, not surprisingly, find negative effects.
The way they did this was via the "Bee Guidance Document," or BGD, which sets out the regulatory requirements for field studies in such a way that they are literally impossible to satisfy. For example, it requires that bee colony losses due to exposure to the pesticide not exceed seven percent, something that is statistically impossible given normal population variations of two or three times that much. Similarly, the document requires tests cover a field area of some 448 square kilometers — four times the area of Paris, France — which simply is not possible in the densely populated European landscape.
To this day, the member states have refused to ratify the BGD because, if it were consistently applied to pesticide approvals, every pesticide on the market would have to be banned.
But even as the EU tied itself into a bureaucratic Gordian knot, regulatory agencies in the U.S., Canada and Australia have largely determined that neonics can be used safely where bees are foraging. This is particularly true of seed treatments (where tiny amounts of the pesticide are coated directly onto the seed before planting), which constitute the vast majority of neonic uses. As Reuters paraphrased the words of one Obama administration EPA official, at the level seen in seed treated crops, it is "almost as if there were no [neonic] present at all."
So the EU once again finds itself the scientific outlier at odds with the global scientific consensus on neonics much as they are on genetically engineered plants, which are also effectively banned in the EU, and any number of other food, chemical and safety issues. They insist this is all about the "precautionary principle" and their "higher standards" of health and environmental safety. In fact, that's just a cover for ideology and politics trumping scientific evidence.
This ban is bad for farmers, who now have to resort to spraying pesticides that are less safe for themselves and for the bees, and it is bad for consumers, who will have to pay more for food. But all of that pales in comparison to the damage done to the integrity of Europe's regulatory process and the reputation of everyone complicit in this sordid saga.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the U.S. FDA's Office of Biotechnology and was a member of the OECD's Group of National Experts on Biotechnology.