Tag Archives: Farming

Should scientists accept funding from agro-chemical companies? The devil’s in the details

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The relationship between use of pesticides (particularly neonicotinoids) and the decline of pollinators is one that I’ve touched on a few times in this blog – see for example:  Bees and pesticides – a major new study just publishedButterflies and pesticides – a new study and a smoking gun; and Pesticides and pollinators: some new studies and contrasting conclusions.  It’s an important and controversial topic that’s unlikely to go away any time soon.  In an article in the New York Times, journalist Danny Hakim has given that particular pot a further stir by discussing Scientists Loved and Loathed by an Agrochemical Giant.

Although it’s been online since New Year’s Eve, the first I heard about the article was when an American colleague sent me a link this morning (the day it appeared in the printed version) and asked me if I had any thoughts and comments about one of the scientists featured – James Cresswell of the University of Exeter.  I’ve known and respected James for over 20 years and I think his contribution to this article provides a brave and open answer to the question I pose in the title of this post: should scientists accept funding from agro-chemical companies?

Please do read that article, it’s fascinating, if not entirely objective in its own right.  The tone and focus of the piece is best summed up by the one-sentence summary at the start, which incorporates a quote from Dave Goulson (University of Sussex):  “With corporate funding of research, “there’s no scientist who comes out of this unscathed””.  In fact that quote is taken rather out of context because Dave’s point was about perceptions of motives and biases, rather than actual corruption of the science and scientists concerned.

Having said that, the article does present a prima facie case that some scientists (though I emphasise not James himself) are playing fast-and-loose with the evidence related to pesticides and GM crops.

Back to perceptions.  Industry funding of university-led scientific research is incredibly common, far more common than the public probably realises.  There are three reasons for that.  First of all, universities are where many subject experts are based, of course.  Secondly, scientific research is expensive: it requires staff, facilities, equipment, funding for overheads, etc.  University researchers are therefore always hunting for money to enable them to carry out research (which in turn is linked to promotion success, career development, and so forth).  Thirdly, external income is an important performance indicator for universities and their constituent departments: James himself is quoted as saying “I was pressured enormously by my university to take that money”, a sentence that will resonate with many UK researchers.

In general the public’s perception (as far as I can tell) is that most of that research is not being corrupted by the industry funding that is attached to it.  In my own faculty at the University of Northampton, for instance, my colleagues have obtained industry funding for research and consultancy work in areas such as product design, lift engineering, materials science, leather processing, computer networks, app development, and so forth.  All controversy-free.

In much of the environmental sector that’s also the case: we’ve had funding from a large water utilities company to write a report on habitat management strategies for reducing rabbit densities close to water bodies, and one of my current research students is being funded by a solar farm company.  Likewise colleagues have been funded by wastes management companies to advise and research in that field.  None of this has generated any negative perceptions, with the possible exception of some aspects of wastes management where issues such as “waste-to-energy” remain controversial.

In other areas of environmental research, however, there have always been accusations of bias levelled at university researchers who are perceived to be industry shills, especially if they are not seen to be toeing a particular line.  I’m deliberately using that word – shill – because it’s something I was accused of being during a heated social media discussion of causes of pollinator declines.  A commenter claimed that I was an “industry shill” for daring to suggest that this was a complex topic, and that there were no easy answers to why (some) pollinators are declining, but that neonicotinoid pesticides were not the only cause.  “Which chemical company is funding your research?” she aggressively demanded to know.  I think I convinced her that I was not (and never have been) funded by chemical companies.  But it raised an interesting question: would I ever accept funding from such companies, if it was offered?

The simple answer is that I don’t know.  It depends what the money was for and what strings were attached in terms of non-disclosure, ownership of data, etc.  As the title of this post states, the devil’s in the details.  I know quite a number of researchers in my field who have had funding from Syngenta, Bayer, and other agro-chemical companies.  Some of these are colleagues with whom I have published research papers.  In general I have no reason to believe that the research conducted by any of these colleagues has been corrupted by their association with the funders.  However in one instance I had a disagreement with a colleague who was not (in my opinion) objective in how they wished to frame part of a paper’s discussion and who may (in my opinion) have been influenced by their association with a particular funder.  In the end this didn’t change the conclusions of the research (which was not itself industry funded) but it did make me pause to consider these subtle biases, which I’m sure could affect anyone*.  Again, perceptions are key here.

Money for the kind of research that’s done by colleagues and myself is always, always going to be in short supply and competitively pursued, and failure to obtain it will always be much more common than success.  Unless funding to address important ecological research questions from government (i.e. taxpayer money) and charities vastly increases, industry will be there to fund research in its own interests, and the perception of scientific bias will remain, whether or not it actually exists.

 

*I’m not prepared to say more about this particular example so please don’t ask.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Honey bees, Neonicotinoids, University of Northampton

Bees and pesticides – a major new study just published – UPDATED

Male B lap on Salvia cropped P1120309

An important new study about the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on wild bees has just been published in the journal Nature Communications – here’s the details and a link to the paper, which is open access:

Woodcock, B. A. et al. (2016) Impacts of neonicotinoid use on long-term population changes in wild bees in England. Nat. Commun. 7:12459 doi: 10.1038/ncomms12459

As I’ve previously discussed on this blog (e.g. here and here) there are widespread concerns amongst environmentalists, and some scientists, about the impact that these relatively new pesticides are having on pollinators and other biodiversity.  The Woodcock et al. paper is a major contribution to this discussion as it uses a huge dataset to model the changes in populations of 62 wild bee species that are known to forage on oilseed rape (canola) over 18 years.  These changes can be related to the spatial extent of oilseed rape cultivation and the authors found that whilst bees “….foraging on oilseed rape benefit from the…[nectar and pollen provided by]….this crop….[they]….were on average three times more negatively affected by exposure to neonicotinoids than…” bees which didn’t forage on the crop.

The authors further conclude that “This study provides the first evidence for community level national scale impacts on the persistence of wild bee populations resulting from exposure to neonicotinoid treated oilseed rape crops.”

Neonicotinoid pesticides are, of course, not the whole story when it comes to understanding declines in pollinator diversity and abundance.  But these pesticides are the latest in a long history of changes to British agriculture that have had significant consequences for the biodiversity of our country (as we showed in our study of bee and wasp extinctions).

Reactions to the study have been, well, predictable.  A long feature on the BBC News website* quoted a representative from Bayer as saying:

“we believe….[the study’s]….findings would be more correctly headlined that intensive agriculture is causing some issues with pollinators…..  Whether this is due to the use of insecticides is not clear; a lack of nesting sites and pollen and nectar sources in these areas may also be critical factors.”

Which rather ignores the fact that this was a comparative study of bees that forage on oilseed rape versus those that don’t.

Likewise the National Farmer’s Union’s position was that:

“While this study claims to provide an important contribution to the evidence base underpinning the current EU moratorium on some uses of neonicotinoids, experts reviewing all the evidence have concluded that there are still major gaps in our knowledge and a limited evidence base to guide policymakers”

Which sounds to me like a statement designed to fudge the issue: the “experts reviewing all the evidence” would not have reviewed this particular study!  And which begs the question – how much evidence and how many studies would be enough for the NFU?

The study’s authors do not make any suggestions as to what the next step should be in this continuing saga but are quoted as saying that “simplistic solutions” such as banning these pesticides are not the answer because this will encourage use of pesticides that are even more damaging.  That may be the case but it’s clear that an independent root-and-branch reassessment of the use of pesticides (and herbicides) in UK agriculture is long overdue.

 

*As an aside, this BBC News piece wrongly states that bumblebees were not included in the study, which is not the case.

 

UPDATE:  After I published this post I noticed that Manu Saunders has also written about the bee study, plus a second study that I’d not seen linking neonicotinoid use to declining butterfly populations in California.  Here’s a link to Manu’s blog.

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Neonicotinoids, Pollination

The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan 2015-2020

B pasc on sunflower

In the last 12 months we’ve seen the release of the National Pollinator Strategy for England and the USA’s Strategy to Promote the Health of Honeybees and Other Pollinators.  Now the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have joined forces to produce the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, a strategy for 2015-2020 that has been released today.  Follow that link and you can download a copy.

This appears to be the first cross-jurisdiction pollinator plan in the world and, as such, is to be welcomed; as I said in my reflections on the National Pollinator Strategy, biodiversity does not respect political boundaries.

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By lifting the restriction on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides Defra throws a (bee) brick at its own National Pollinator Strategy

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Yesterday a brick arrived in the post.  Not just any brick, but a Bee Brick, designed by the Green&Blue company in Cornwall as an architectural addition that can provide habitat for cavity nesting solitary species such as the Patchwork leaf-cutter bee that I discussed during Pollinator Awareness week.  A representative of the company recently got in touch, after having read my blog, and asked if I’d like a sample to try out in the garden.  In the absence of any planned wall building I’ve placed it a couple of metres up on the flat top of a south facing summer house window.  It’s probably a bit late in the season to attract any nesting solitary bees this year, but we’ll see; expect a report back from me at some point.

I had actually encountered the Bee Brick earlier this year at the Chelsea Flower Show which Karin and I attended as a 50th year bucket-list day out.  It was ok, I enjoyed it, the plants and (some of) the gardens were great.  But it was too busy, too expensive and too full of ostentatiously wealthy people for my tastes.

As if to serve as a counter-point to all the good work being done during Pollinator Awareness Week and by companies such as Green&Blue, came the recent news that Defra has agreed to lift the restrictions on use of two neonicotinoid pesticides on oil seed rape across a “limited” area in the east of the country.  It will apparently apply mainly to Suffolk, and cover an area of about 30,000 hectares.  That’s 5% of the UK’s oil seed rape crop.

The decision was made at the behest of the National Farmers Union, and seems to make no farming sense whatsoever given that nationally yields of oil seed rape have not been affected by the restriction on neonicotinoids, with the harvest this year looking to be above average.   Not surprisingly the decision has drawn furious fire from a range of environmental organisations including Buglife and the Wildlife Trusts. Meanwhile Friends of the Earth have threatened legal action, a move prompted by the fact that the Government has refused to allow its independent advisors to publish the details of the decision, including how it was made and what was discussed.

Aside from the lack of transparency, what particularly worries me is that this decision opens the door to further use of these restricted pesticides over the next 12 months, on a region by region basis, until we are back where we were prior to the restrictions being imposed.  The two year restriction on use of neonicotinoid pesticides comes to an end in December, at which point no one outside (and possibly inside) of Defra knows what is going to happen.

The National Farmers Union is being very selective with their use of information about the scientific evidence base for the effects of these pesticides on pollinators.  Dr Chris Hartfield, the NFU’s horticultural policy adviser and lead on bee health issues, was quoted as saying “The majority of the research that has fuelled this debate has been based on artificial dosing studies. The big question in this area is, does this accurately reflect what happens to bees foraging in and around neonicotinoid crops?  We don’t know, but the field studies haven’t shown that they are causing population declines in pollinators”.

Dr Hartfield and the NFU know full well that all of the evidence so far published shows that even at very small (field realistic) doses, neonicotinoid pesticides have been demonstrated to have important, sub-lethal effects on pollinators that may ultimately affect populations of some species.  Surely the wisest course of action is to further restrict their use until we have studied the situation.

This is not the only occasion when the NFU have been less than objective with their use of scientific evidence.  In the past couple of weeks I’ve had a group email exchange with Dr Hartfield in which he talked about the study by Carvalheiro et al. (2013) that “shows these [pollinator] declines have slowed (or even reversed) in the last 2 decades”.  I responded by pointing out that the current situation is not as straightforward as that.  The recent paper that we published in the journal Science showed that the rate of extinctions of UK bees and flower-visiting wasps has in fact increased over the period when Carvalheiro et al. (2013) see a slow down in declines in abundance.

There are a number of reasons why our results may be in disagreement with those of Carvalheiro et al., which we discuss in the paper, including the large statistical confidence interval around the rate of extinction during this latter period. However as with all such data, one or two studies will not give a definitive answer.  I provided Dr Hartfield with a link to our paper but I’m still waiting to receive a reply.

Initiatives such as the Bee Brick, reduced mowing on road verges, the RHS’s Perfect for Pollinators plant list, etc., etc. are important but they are tiny contributions compared to the role that must be played by British agriculture if we are to conserve pollinator diversity in the UK.  Farming accounts for 70% of the land surface in this country and has by far the greatest part to play in reducing biodiversity loss.

Within 12 months of Defra launching the National Pollinator Strategy, the same Government department has decided to bow to pressure and allow some use of a group of pesticides that we know are causing problems, even if they are not the whole story.  Defra is effectively hurling what may be the first of many bricks at itself, ultimately weakening the Strategy.   From conversations with politicians I know that these large departments do not have good internal communication and dialogue, but this seems to be an outstanding example of Orwellian double-think on the part of Defra.

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Extinction of British bees and flower-visiting wasps – a new assessment of rates and causes

Extinction of species is perhaps the most fundamental assault that we as humans can inflict on the rest of the natural world.  Extinctions take a range of forms, from the loss of a whole species (such as the sad case of the St Helena Giant Earwig, recently declared extinct by the IUCN), down to extirpation of local populations.

For an island nation such as Britain, extinctions at a country level are highly significant because there is limited opportunity for species to disperse across the sea and re-colonise areas where they previously lived.  In a new research paper published this week in the journal Science we have addressed the subject of pollinator declines in the UK and asked the following questions:

1.  How many bee and flower-visiting wasp species have gone extinct in the UK?

2.  Is the rate of extinction (e.g. number of species per decade) constant or variable over time?

3.  Can we interpret any patterns in relation to broader societal changes, for example in agricultural policy, conservation strategies, etc?

The research is a collaboration between myself and University of Northampton colleagues Dr Robin Crockett and Dr Hilary Erenler, together with Mike Edwards from the Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society (BWARS), the c. 500,000 records of which were used in these analyses.  This is probably the most extensive data set on these insects available for any country and an important resource.

The answer to the first question is that 23 species of bees and flower-visiting wasps have gone extinct, ranging in time from the crabronid wasp Lestica clypeata (last observed in 1853) to the solitary bee Andrena lathyri (not seen since 1990).  All of these species still occur on mainland Europe, so these were country-level extinctions, not species extinctions.

The answer to questions 2 and 3 is that the rate of extinction is highly variable, and by using a novel statistical approach adapted by Robin to analyse the changing rate over time, we found that the main period of species loss followed changes to agricultural policy and practice just after the First World War.  This is much earlier than previously believed: until now it has usually been the Second World War and the subsequent Common Agricultural Policy which have been seen as the main drivers of pollinator loss.  This figure produced by Robin shows the results in detail:

Figure 2 colour

The four periods marked in red are the points where we estimate the rate of extinction changed (with 99% confidence intervals shown in pink).  The most rapid rate of extinction (shown by the solid blue piecewise regression lines and dashed 99% confidence intervals) is from the late 1920s to the late 1950s.  This, we believe, is the cumulative effect of agricultural changes precipitated and then augmented by the First and the Second World Wars, respectively.

The period of extinction from the late 19th into the early 20th centuries was probably caused by increased import of South American guano as soil fertilizer which increased grass productivity at the expense of wild flower diversity.  This reduced reliance on strict rotational cropping, including fallow periods with nectar- and pollen-rich weeds, and N-fixing legume years.  However it was the invention of the Haber Process in 1909, allowing industrial manufacture of inorganic nitrogen fertilizers for the first time, that fundamentally affected British agriculture.

The slow down of the rate of extinction from the early 1960s to the mid 1980s is not easily explained given the continued intensification of farming, encouraged by Common Agricultural Policy subsidies.  It could be due to the most sensitive species having been already lost, or because of conservation initiatives including the establishment of more nature reserves by organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB, habitat restoration and management by groups such as the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, more farmers going organic, etc.  Or it could be a combination of both, and/or factors we’ve not yet thought of.

The final period of extinctions from 1986 to 1994, where the rate seems to increase, could be seen as evidence against the slowing in the rate of decline of pollinators in north west Europe found by Carvalheiro et al. (2013).  However  we need to be cautious here as there’s a large confidence interval around the calculated extinction rate.  The four extinctions between 1988-1990 could be an isolated cluster, or the start of a further period of relatively high extinction rate.  Only time will tell!

Bees, wasps and other pollinating insects are absolutely vital to the functioning of our natural ecosystems and for a great many agricultural crops.  We’ve known for some time that these insects are declining in Britain but now we can see how historical agricultural changes have caused species to become extinct. The big question is whether these extinctions have stopped or whether they will continue in the future. The species that have been lost to Britain still survive on the Continent and there is the possibility of natural re-colonisation or artificial reintroduction, both of which have occurred in recent years.  However in order for this to be successful we must restore as much natural habitat as possible within our farmland, which after all covers some 70% of the British land surface.  The irony of our findings, of course, is that pollinators are vital for agriculture, as the UK Government’s National Pollinator Strategy recognises.

Studies such as this illustrates the importance of maintaining the year-on-year effort of recording natural history data – the research simply wouldn’t have been possible without the BWARS records, which are mainly collected by amateur naturalists.

The full citation for the paper is:  Ollerton, J., Erenler, H., Edwards, M. & Crockett, R. (2014) Extinctions of aculeate pollinators in Britain and the role of large-scale agricultural changes. Science 346:1360-1362.  I’m happy to send a PDF to anyone who requests a copy for personal use. 

Notes:

1.  We define “extinction” as ≥ 20 years since the last recorded occurrence of the species in Britain, which is why the data stop at 1994.

2.  We have excluded single early records of species that cannot be verified as representing stable breeding populations.

3. Analyses were performed using the ‘segmented’ library in R (www.r-project.org)

4.  Thanks to Robin Crockett for the figure and the analyses, and Hilary Erenler and Mike Edwards for their input into the study.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Macroecology, Pollination, University of Northampton