Neonicotinoids – Arguing over science, or economics?

The debate around neonicatinoids, a class of insecticides that are harmful to bees and other pollinators, rumbles on. The Guardian announced that ‘Neonicotinoids are the new DDT’ (here), while the BBC reported ‘Government rejects the science behind neonicotinoid ban’ – (here). So it sounds like the decision to ban or not to ban neonics turns on some complicated chemistry.

In fact, the government is agnostic on whether neonicotinoids are significantly harmful to bees. Dr Boyd, DEFRA Chief Scientist, stated in an interview:

“If neonics are having an effect on bees, it may be a relatively small effect, [but] the question in my mind is: is that effect on pollination balanced off by the costs it would incur if we banned neonicotinoids?”

Contrary to the headlines, most of the argument is not over the science at all. What there is most disagreement over is whether the potential harm is justified, given the benefits that are claimed to be generated by the use of pesticides.

The Environmental Audit Committee have taken an extreme line when they state (here) that “economic considerations should not form part of environmental risk management decision-making”. This seems misguided. The trade-off between costs and benefits, whether monetary or non-monetary, is at the heart of both decision-making and economics.

The rhetoric offered by Damian Carrington (here) is similarly unhelpful. In his article, he asserts that economic analysis is only of use “if short-term economic impact is the measure you value over long term environmental health”. This equates economics to self-interest and greed, and completely ignores the healthy recognition that has been building for years, that long term environmental health is valuable to all of us and supports a sustainable economy.

Of course, the other side of the debate is just as shrill. Bayer and Syngenta’s -financed report (here) claims that European agriculture would lose the equivalent of $17bn over a 5 year period if neonics were banned. Similarly, it was reported in the Farmers’ Guardian (here), that banning neonicotinoids could cause some crop yields to fall by 20%. This is based on a raft of assumptions, and a very helpful critique of some aspects of this story was presented by Lynn Dicks, on the Valuing Nature Network (here). She notes that the scare stories of winter wheat yields declining by 20% were based on combining the worst cases of withdrawing all pesticides, poor weather and insufficient staff resources. Hardly the basis for a ‘Most-Likely’ scenario!

So another complex issue, but one that’s best approached with all the analytical tools at our disposal. And that means using economic cost-benefit analysis – not just rejecting it because it doesn’t fit with preconceptions of environmental management.