The tragedy of unscientific policymaking from our governments: from pesticides to GMOs

It has been quite some time since I have written a blog post. My last one was on how politicians approach data and my current one is no different (though perhaps a bit angrier). Last week, the UK Government decided to suspend a ban on pesticides that have been shown (convincingly) to harm bees.

My heart sank. Bees are already in a precipitous decline (for many reasons, including pesticides), and they are responsible for pollinating much of our crops. Bee decline will lead to an agricultural disaster.

So as a concerned citizen, I wrote to my MP (Steven Paterson, MP for Stirling) imploring him to fight this government policy. Here it is:

Dear Mr Paterson,

I write to you to express my extreme concern with the Government’s approach to neonicotinoid (neonic) pesticides. The Government claims the jury is out as to whether these pesticides cause damage to key pollinators, but this position is much like claiming the jury is out on manmade global warming. Top quality research from our own university here in Stirling (published in the leading journal, Science) has demonstrated that neonics cause huge damage to bees (that are already struggling). This is not just a conservation concern; bees pollinate our crops, so the agricultural consequences of further bee decline could be catastrophic.

Relaxing the ban on neonics may be of short-term benefit as they make it easier to grow crops such as oil seed rape, however, the long-term consequences will be disastrous.

Thank you for taking the time to read my short email. I hope you will be able to make representations to the relevant Minister.

Yours sincerely,

Stuart Auld

The response I got was this:

Hi Stuart,

Thank you for taking the time to write to me.

The SNP Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs has urged the UK government to accept EU restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids, but has said the measures should not to be implemented until more evidence has been gathered.

The SNP Scottish Government has suggested a precautionary approach with a built‐in breathing space and exit strategy. When it comes to protecting our biodiversity and wildlife, there are times when taking a precautionary approach is perfectly justifiable.

It is in the interests of our environment and our farmers that we have healthy bee populations but we know there are a wide range of factors affecting these valuable pollinators.

Kind regards

Steven Paterson MP

This response did not leave me happy. It seems (after googling some of the phrases in the reply) that the SNP Government entirely agrees with Westminster on this issue – they think the burden of proof should be on showing that the pesticides are unsafe (and not vice-versa). Not happy with this, I sent the following reply (which, in hindsight, was more than a little snobby, but here it is for completeness).

Dear Mr Paterson,

Forgive me, but it took me a while to understand your response – “a precautionary approach with built-in breathing space and exit strategy” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. On googling that phrase, I found the Scottish Government’s relevant policy document. I am assuming this means that the Scottish Government’s position is that of the UK Government, i.e., to allow the use of neonics until there is more evidence saying they cause bee declines?

I’m sorry, but this policy is wrong-headed for two reasons:

(1) The appropriate “precautionary approach” is to ban these pesticides until there is more evidence they are safe – “Safety First!” is a common phrase for good reason.

(2) The UK Government is gagging its own scientific advisors because they refused to back the NFU’s request to lift the neonic ban. Even if, as both Governments argue, the burden of proof should be on showing that neonics are NOT safe for bees (which it shouldn’t), this will never happen whilst the Government’s own scientists are prevented from publishing results.

The evidence for neonic-induced bee declines is exceptionally compelling, and comes from numerous labs working all over the world. Farmers are having a tough time, but without bees, our agriculture sector will be devastated and we will struggle to feed ourselves. It may sound like I am catastrophising, but I cannot overstate the extent of the problem. I urge you, as an independent minded local MP to challenge this dangerous policy.

Yours sincerely,

Stuart Auld

Somewhat unsurprisingly, I have not had any other correspondence from my MP. He clearly does not have a view on the subject and is happy to refer me to the Scottish Government’s official stance. But now I realise things are even worse: the Scottish Government’s agricultural policy is even more unscientific than I originally feared – they are seeking to ban GM crops in Scotland.

That’s right – they want to allow pesticides that have been shown to be dangerous, yet ban a technology that has been shown to be safe.

Whenever I challenge someone attacking GM crops as being “frankenfood” etc. the arguments almost always contain phrases like “it’s just not natural” and “you can’t mess with nature like that”. Getting into a metal tube and flying isn’t natural; engineering antibiotics isn’t natural; our entire agricultural landscape isn’t natural. This argument that we should ban GM because it isn’t natural is a complete and utter red herring.

Selective breeding for preferred trains has been around for centuries. Wouldn’t it be nice to selectively breed only the precise traits we need (and therefore avoid simultaneously selecting for bad traits)? That is GM, and it will help us – no, already is helping us –  feed our ever-growing populations.

What I find interesting is many who are anti-GM are ardent believers in man-made climate change. They don’t see their anti-GM stance is equally unscientific as the stance of climate change deniers. People being unscientific is one thing, but I expect my governments (both Scottish, UK and European) to aim to at least try to formulate evidence-based policy. And yes, I will be that incredibly annoying constituent that emails and blogs about it until they do. Trust me, I can be really annoying.

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