Novels about scientists can give an insight into a life in science. But if the insight is unrealistic, is there potential for damage?
This post is neither about genetic modification nor about my novel. Instead it is about two of my related pet topics: scientists in fiction and neonicotinoid pesticides.
This week we read Coffin Road by Peter May at my Fiction Lab book club (free and open to all at London’s Royal Institution – please join us) which told the story of a scientist studying the effect of neonicotinoids on bees.
I’m reviewed the book for lablit.com, and wanted to provide extra information here. It’s a debate I’ve been following for the last few years, and I’ve blogged about my early involvement. It’s time for an update though, as the reality still isn’t reflected in popular debate.
Coffin Road certainly played to the popular narrative. At the risk of a spoiler alert, the premise is that honeybees are in danger because of neonicotinoids, and if only our protagonist can finish one experiment without being murdered by a big corporation then governments will have no choice but to ban these pesticides.
The reality is that the honeybee is a domestic species which is thriving thanks to humans (see the graph above produced from FAO data).
The alarming stats you hear about percentage declines aren’t net losses. A character in Coffin Road states that ‘between thirty and fifty percent of the bee population of the United States alone is dying every year’ (he means honeybees not bees). This would be catastrophic is it were a downward trend. However, beekeepers have ways of founding new colonies to replace the ones they lose. Nobody likes to give stats about how many colonies are founded each year. The losses are still a concern for beekeepers though, and the causes are complex.
There’s increasing evidence that neonicotinoids are amongst the factors negatively affecting populations of wild bees (a big conservation concern). For this reason, certain neonicotinoids are banned in the EU.
Evidence in the field is extremely hard to collect due to the many factors which affect insect populations. Unlike the story in Coffin Road, no single study could produce sufficient evidence to warrant a ban.
This complexity of the evidence is one of the reasons the ban is controversial. Another reason is that farmers and chemical companies don’t like it. However, whilst I’ve blogged before about possible biases from industry science, the intimidation and, er, murder suggested in Coffin Road are very far from the truth.
Of all the evidence of the effect of neonicotinoids on bee populations, a recent study from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is amongst the most persuasive. Their results suggest that sub-lethal effects of neonicotinoids could scale up to cause losses of bee biodiversity.
They conclude that restrictions on neonicotinoid use may reduce population declines. In terms of the current ban, however, I thought there were wise words from the study’s lead author, Ben Woodcock:
“When you grow oilseed rape you can’t do it without pesticides, there’s an underlying reality to this.
“Just because you say ‘don’t use neonicotinoids anymore’, the likelihood is that another pesticide is going to have to be used to compensate for that. That is going to have impacts on runoffs into waterways and on other species that you can control for.
“It needs to be taken in a very holistic perspective, you can’t just say as long as we can save the bees everything else can go to hell, that’s not where you want to be at.”
Amongst the missing evidence in the neonicotinoid debate is the effect of neonicotinoids on yield. Conservation charities have challenged reports stating that yields have taken a big hit as a result of the EU neonic ban. There’s also some evidence that neonics don’t consistently increase farmer profit.
If farmers are sustaining yields without neonics, we have to ask how. It seems that the answer is at least in part that they use other pesticides. This needs more research, and it’s not clear how these alternative pesticides will affect bees.
If we want to ban anything that harms insects we need to ban agriculture (organic farming definitely included). However, I for one am keen to eat. We therefore need to use the best available evidence to work out how to feed the global population with minimum damage to biodiversity.
It would be very convenient to blame evil corporations for bee declines, as Coffin Road does. It’s comfortable to think of a single fix which will come from somewhere else. Sadly, the reasons for the decline are complex, including habitat loss and climate change. So we might want to think about our own behaviour, including how much food we throw in the bin.