Pro-neonic scientists stay quiet as debate rages

Neonicotinoid debate gets ugly | Scientists who defend seed treatments say they are verbally attacked if they speak out

Canadian scientists who believe insecticidal seed treatments are safe are not contributing to the debate over neonicotinoids over fears of how other researchers and environmental groups will react.

Ontario environment minister Glen Murray and provincial environment commissioner Gord Miller said earlier this month that neonics are a greater threat to Canada’s ecosystem than DDT.

Few, if any, Canadian toxicologists and environmental scientists responded.

Canadian scientists who spoke off the record said that publicly challenging these sorts of comments has become hazardous to their careers.

They said that fellow academics and environmental groups launch verbal assaults to destroy their reputations if they say neonics are safe. Consequently, scientists aren’t speaking up to defend neonics because it’s not worth the hostility.

Neonics, which are applied as a seed treatment to almost all corn and canola in North America and a percentage of soybeans, have been linked to bee colony losses across the United States and Canada.

Beekeepers in Ontario filed a $450 million class action suit against neonicotinoid manufacturers Syngenta and Bayer in September, claiming production losses dating back to 2006.

University of Saskatchewan research suggests neonics are present at detectable levels in sloughs and wetlands in Western Canada. The neonics are possibly killing insects that come in contact with the water. A lack of insects reduces the food supply for birds that rely on the insects.

A highly regarded toxicologist said the environmental risks surrounding neonicotinoids are “overstated.” Data indicates they are present in wetlands and other water bodies, but the concentrations are in the parts per trillion, which is essentially nothing.

He said the true “believers and zealots” hype the neonic risk and use “their research to make an issue where none exists, or make it larger to garner press for the ego and funds for the lab.”

Still, the scientist, and others like him, is reluctant to speak up.

An environmental scientist said this case is more unusual than most because the attackers are often other academics.

May Berenbaum, an entomology department head at the University of Illinois and vice-president of the Entomological Society of America, said fellow academics haven’t attacked her reputation, but when she publicly says neonics are not the sole reason behind honeybee decline, she does receive malicious emails from the public, many accusing her of being in the pocket of industry, which she said is not true.

Berenbaum is more shocked that fellow scientists have lowered their academic standards when it comes to neonics. She said prominent journals are publishing sub-standard science on insecticidal seed treatments and bees.

“There are a lot of papers that aren’t, I would say, scientifically bulletproof, that have appeared in very high profile journals…. It’s the classic line. Why is this in Nature? Why is this in Science?” she said.

“That seems to be all over the place, and there certainly are egregious examples…. It appears to be easier to publish a high profile paper that demonstrates adverse impacts of neonicotinoids, than it does to publish a (no effect) paper.”

A Canadian researcher said most reviewers are hostile to insecticide seed treatments, so research showing neonics are safe is highly scrutinized. Meanwhile, papers concluding insecticidal seed treatments are dangerous to bees are less thoroughly judged.

Berenbaum said claiming that neonicotinoids are worse than DDT is a good public relations strategy.

“Even though it’s been banned in the U.S. since 1972, it’s the one they (people) know. It’s familiar and it’s like DDT is the Hitler of pesticides. If it (neonics) is worse than DDT, then it is worse than Hitler.”

  • About 7,000 beekeepers maintain about 600,000 colonies in Canada. About 80 percent of colonies are owned by commercial operators, while 20 percent are owned by hobbyists.
  • Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have about 475,000 colonies and produce 80 percent of Canada’s honey. Many colonies are used in pollination of hybrid canola.
  • Prairie beekeepers average 2,000 colonies per operator.
  • Operators in Eastern Canada and British Columbia average 600 colonies per commercial beekeeper. Most commercial beekeepers are involved in pollination services for the horticulture industry, especially blueberries and apples.
  • Canada produces 75 million pounds of honey each year. About one-third of that is produced in Alberta, one-third from Saskatchewan and Manitoba combined, and the final one-third is produced by the rest of the country.
  • Half of all honey Canada produces is exported, about 85 percent of that goes to the United States.

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