Some old ideas for bad laws are endlessly recycled. Take the case of the Saving America's Pollinators Act, a nearly six-year-old initiative now cosponsored by two Democrat representatives, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.
Reintroduced for the fifth time since 2013, the bill would usurp the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) regulatory responsibilities by withdrawing the registrations of eight pesticides—principally neonicotinoid insecticides—that are supposedly endangering bees.
Like so many other flawed pieces of legislation, it sounds simple and unobjectionable. What could be wrong with banning pesticides that are allegedly killing the insects that pollinate our flowers and keep our food supply varied, nutritious, and affordable? As it turns out, plenty.
Neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics, for short) are state-of-the-art crop protection products that anti-pesticide zealots have been campaigning to eliminate for the better part of a decade. Applied mostly as seed coatings, which obviates the need for foliar spraying, they are absorbed into crop plants and control crop-destroying pests.
They are safe for humans and animals, and the way they are used minimizes exposure to beneficial species such as bees and other pollinators. Small wonder, then, that they've become the world's most widely used class of insecticide—and a prime target of anti-pesticide campaigners, many of whom are agents of the organic agriculture and food industries. The irony is that if passed, the Saving America's Pollinators Act would actually be detrimental to bees and other pollinating species, while harming America's farmers.
Apart from removing crop protection tools on which farmers depend and that are vital to the survival of the U.S. citrus industry, among others, this bill establishes a Pollinator Protection Board, which would cede to environmental activists the ability to annually review and ban any other pesticide they deem harmful to pollinators, in effect, giving them a chokehold on most U.S. agricultural production that is not organic. There are other reasons that the bill is unwise, unnecessary, and unconscionable.
The Bee-Pocalypse Isn't Real
First, and most fundamental, there is no bee-pocalypse, insect-pocalypse, or pollinator crisis. Contrary to the claims of environmental activists, honey bee populations in North America and Europe have been steady or rising throughout the two decades that neonics have been on the market.
Honey bee populations have nearly doubled worldwide since 1961. The challenges honey bees face are principally attributable to three factors: parasites, like the tenacious varroa destructor mite; pathogens, such as the widely prevalent gut fungi Nosema apis and Nosema ceranae; and habitat loss. As described in the entomology literature (e.g., here and here), however, pesticides can exert a synergistic negative effect on bees in the presence of other stressors.
Second, the U.S. EPA has been reviewing neonic registrations for several years and has issued generally favorable preliminary ecological assessments for all of them. To date, while some added label restrictions and mitigation measures have been proposed, none of these re-assessments has found circumstances meriting a wholesale ban. The Saving America's Pollinators Act would usurp EPA's deliberate, scientific review process in favor of a ban based on nothing more than environmentalists' scare-mongering.
Third, the current revival of this bill was obviously prompted by the European Union's recent total ban on outdoor uses of neonic pesticides. That decision was based on a rigged "Bee Guidance Document" (BGD) purposely crafted with field testing standards so strict that neonics would fail. It flew in the face of both the data on honey bee populations that debunked the "crisis" and the consistent evidence from large-scale field tests, which find no adverse effects on honey bees at the colony level from field-realistic exposures to neonics. (Because of its obvious flaws, the BGD was never accepted by the EU member states.)
Meanwhile, the leftist Canadian government seems headed in the same direction as the EU, but with a twist. Unable to demonstrate a neonic threat to bees after years of evaluation, its Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) has postulated a previously unheard-of threat to aquatic invertebrates from traces of neonics in freshwater sources.
To pull this rabbit out of its hat, the PMRA hypothesized a range of possible harms to aquatic invertebrates, using a standard more than 10 times more stringent than that of the U.S. EPA. This conjecture occurred in the absence of any actual demonstration of harm or even any population data on these species for comparison—all the while ignoring data from western Canada that contradicted its assumptions. Both the EU's ban and Canada's proposed phase-out are politically mandated but not scientifically supported—a terrible precedent for the United States to copy.
The Precautionary Principle
Fourth, the Blumenauer-McGovern bill would implicitly adopt the "precautionary principle" that underlies the EU's approach to environmental regulation, which can be summarized as: "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." In practice, however, "look before you leap" becomes, "don't ever leap."
Since nothing can be proven a priori to be absolutely risk-free, the precautionary principle puts objectors forever in the driver's seat. Innovative product development would suffer, agricultural productivity would fall, and our global competitiveness would be compromised.
The precautionary approach is a major reason that despite enjoying some of the most favorable land and climate conditions in the world, the EU today is a net importer of food. Farmers there are having to do without state-of-the-art agricultural chemicals and genetically engineered crop plants, and their productivity is suffering.
Last but not least, American farmers would be hurt by the legislation The EU ban on neonics is devastating large swaths of agriculture, leaving crops such as oilseed rape and sugar beets vulnerable to plant pests. Ironically, it is also forcing farmers to rely on frequent, high-volume spray applications of older, harsher pesticides that are much more lethal to bees. Were it to be enacted, the Saving America's Pollinators Act would do the same in this country, all to address a nonexistent "bee-pocalypse."
In reality, it's America's farmers who need protecting—from members of Congress and the law of unintended consequences.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was formerly a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.