Our self-proclaimed 'greenest Government ever' continues with its Gilbert and Sullivan approach to living up to that claim. The latest manifestation of its skewed attitudes to the natural world is the attempt to block the European Union (EU) imposing controls on the use of insecticides thought by many to harm bees. The substances are neonicitinoides and one of them is said to be the most widely used insecticide in the world. The manufacturers deny that their products are causing any harm. (There are echoes in this debate of that surrounding DDT in the 1950s or, in a different context, that about the link between smoking and lung cancer.)
As for bees and other essential pollinators, as reported previously here, their numbers are declining. This is a major cause of concern - a significant proportion of our food relies upon insect pollinators. No one is suggesting that the insecticides are solely responsible for this; other factors include habitat loss, parasitic mites, and fungal and viral infections. Even so the decline of bees has apparently mirrored the rise in use of the neonicitinoides, and effects caused by a variety of factors in combination are both rarely tested for and notoriously difficult to demonstrate.
With millions of people supporting a ban, many scientific studies providing plausible, if not always compelling, evidence of links between the use of the insecticides and problems with bees, and the Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons calling for action, the EU proposal for a two year ban seems to be no more than common sense. Not according to the Government. When the measure was voted on in Brussels on April 29 we voted against.
This despite supporters of the ban presenting a petition to the Government signed by 300,000 people, and MP Joan Whalley, Chair of the Environment Audit Committee saying, after a six month investigation, that Defra's approach to protecting bees is 'extraordinarily complacent' and that 'the weight of scientific evidence now warrants a ban'.
As with the debate about badgers, cattle and bovine TB, government scientists seem determined to reflect just one side of the argument. Their pronouncements are in line with, and supportive of, government policy and the views of companies with a commercial interest in the continuing use of the chemicals. The Government Chief Scientist Sir Mark Walport, writing in the Financial Times on 26 April, made many valid points, including the fact that neonicitinoides were introduced as safer alternatives to DDT, and that bumble bees seem to be more susceptible to them than honey bees. Even so he came out firmly against the (temporary) ban.
Two oft quoted principles of policy-making are the precautionary principle, and that policy should be evidence-based. In this case the first seems to have been ignored, whilst the second has been reversed: in Whitehall we have here what looks like policy-based evidence!