Pesticide company under fire for funding research into bee decline
By Rob Edwards
One of the world’s biggest pesticide companies, Syngenta, has been accused of a “howling conflict of interest” for funding research into the disappearance of honeybees - a problem which some say it may have helped cause.
Syngenta, based in Basel, Switzerland, last year clocked up £7.3 billion worth of sales in more than 90 countries. Among the products it markets to farmers are insecticides which have been blamed for harming honeybees.
It now also co-funds a £1 million project in the UK, announced last week, to research the decline of the bees. But the company insists that its money will not influence the outcome of the research, and dismisses criticisms of its role as “perverse”.
A film due to open in cinemas this week exposes the global plight of the honeybee, and argues that insecticides are partly to blame. Called ‘Vanishing of the Bees’, it is backed by the £9 billion Co-operative retail group, which has banned suspect chemicals from being used on its fresh fruit and vegetables.
According to beekeepers, honeybee populations in the UK crashed by nearly a third in 2008. The implications are alarming, as bees contribute £200 million a year to the UK economy and pollinate one in every three mouthfuls of food that we eat.
The crash has sometimes been labelled “colony collapse disorder”, and its causes are not well understood. Scientists speculate that a combination of factors may be involved, including disease, mites, weather and modern farming practices.
But some argue that a group of widely-used nicotine-based insecticides known as neonicotinoids could be inflicting neural damage on bees, and contributing to their demise. Syngenta sells two products containing neonicotinoids under the trade names, Actara and Cruiser.
To protect bee populations, the use of some of the suspect insecticides have been banned or restricted in France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia. They can still used, however, in other countries like the UK and the US.
A coalition of environmental groups has launched a campaign for a ban on neonicotinoids in the UK. One of them, the Soil Association, which certifies organic food, criticised Syngenta for funding research into bee decline.
The association’s Scottish director, Hugh Raven, pointed out that the company had already made its position clear by opposing a ban on neonicotinoids. “The taint of commercial interest has undermined this research before it's even started,” he said.
The research project is also supported by the government’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). “The BBSRC should think again, and get a co-funder without this howling conflict of interest,” argued Raven.
He was backed by professor Andrew Watterson, head of the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at Stirling University. There were “potential conflicts of interest in the project which may affect the credibility of the findings”, he said.
“The public is funding a research project with a manufacturer who profits from producing some of the pesticides that others fear may be factors in the bee decline,” he added. “This may be good for business, but it does not seem the wisest use of public money.”
Graham White, a beekeeper in the Scottish Borders and an environmental author, was scathing about Syngenta’s role. “Putting Syngenta in charge of UK research into the causes of honeybee deaths is arguably the equivalent of putting the tobacco companies in charge of research into lung cancer, or asking the manufacturers of alco-pops to research the causes of teenage binge drinking,” he said.
But the criticisms were angrily rejected by Syngenta’s head of corporate affairs in the UK, Andrew Coker. To suggest that the company’s funding could influence the outcome of the research was “appalling” and “an outrageous slur”, he told the Sunday Herald.
“It seems perverse that we put our money into researching bee health and then get criticised for it. Nobody is sure what is causing bees to decline, so this is the right thing to do.”
BBSRC’s Director of Innovation and Skills, Dr Celia Caulcott, also defended the research. “The use of insecticides in agriculture is just one possible reason for the problems bees are facing,” she said.
“The most important thing to do right now is to understand exactly what is happening and then translate that knowledge into actions to address the decline. We are pleased that Syngenta is on board with us to work towards achieving this aim as quickly as possible.”
Caulcott added: “Results from the research carried out under this funding award will go through the normal process of independent review and publication to ensure quality and impartiality before they are likely to impact on farming practice.”