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Opinion: Dr Chris Hartfield, NFU acting chief science and regulatory affairs adviser and lead on bee health and pollinator issues

Research

I really welcome the findings of the world’s largest ever field trial looking at the real impacts of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees, yet, once again, this new piece of research appears to have completely split those involved in this issue over whether or not it is a gamechanger.

 

Is it the final nail in the coffin of neonicotinoids, or another piece of useful, but inconclusive, research? Having spent six years doing trials with beneficial insects, I know how challenging these big experiments are. This study is complex and delivers a range of results which adds to our understanding.

 

I have no issue with the results, they are not in dispute. The problem lies with how the results are interpreted and reported. Because reporting just a small part of the findings serves only to ensure there is one clear loser from this study, and this is science itself.

 

The main findings focus on whether two different neonicotinoid seed treatments in three different countries affect 14 different measures of bee health, compared to crops not treated with neonicotinoids.

 

The study looks at 84 different comparisons of a ‘with neonicotinoid’ situation with a ‘no neonicotinoid’ situation. From these 84 comparisons, only nine show a significant effect.

 

Of the nine significant results, six show a significant negative or harmful effect and three show a significant positive or beneficial effect. In an ideal world, you would hear about these results, but people only talk about the harmful effects. There is a conspiracy of silence about the positive effects of neonicotinoid use for bees found in this study.

 

The study shows in Germany there were just two significant results and they were both a beneficial effect for bees (honeybees and bumblebees). Yet I have actually heard a leading environmental organisation say researchers ‘did not find any results’ in Germany.

 

I have not heard the significant positive result for honeybees in the UK mentioned either. Perhaps worse than this blindness to the positive results from this study is the ignoring of the fact that for at least 75 of the 84 comparisons – 89 per cent of the scenarios tested – use of neonicotinoids had no effect at all.

 

The question here has never been whether neonicotinoids can be harmful to bees; the question is whether or not such harm means neonicotinoids are the cause of widespread declines in bee biodiversity and populations, and whether, as a result, the evidence supports bans on their use.

 

This landmark study does not answer this question, but the reporting of this research has been an object lesson in how to ignore most of the evidence. This will not help bees and it undermines the credibility of science itself.

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