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Syngenta scientist casts doubts on neonicotinoid research

One U.K.-based researcher believes the real culprit behind colony collapse is inexperience, poor weather, mites and disease — not neonicotinoids

A Syngenta bee researcher told the recent GrowCanada conference neonicotinoids are being unfairly blamed for declining bee populations.

“The risk to bee populations from neonicotinoids as they are currently used and used according to the label, is low,” Helen Thompson, a Syngenta bee researcher, told attendees.

The U.K.-based scientist said studies used in the European Union to justify a two-year ban on the use of neonicotinoids across the continent were based on studies that didn’t replicate the kinds of conditions bees actually encounter in their natural environment.

The conditions used in the studies were “very extreme,” Thompson said, adding that in some cases bees were exposed to thousands of times the amount of pesticide contained in actual agricultural products.

But a study led by the British researcher and used to oppose the European ban on neonicotinoids has also been called into question. Before joining Syngenta in September of this year, Thompson worked for the U.K. government’s Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA). It was there, British publications report, that her study on neonicotinoids and bumblebees drew criticism after control colonies intended to remain pesticide free, were contaminated with the neuro-active insecticide.

Syngenta also financed an FERA research project in which Thompson participated, leading some in the British Parliament to question the impartiality of the work.

But Thompson doesn’t put much stock in what the media has to say about her research, and believes opinions around the use of pesticides are tied more to perception than science.

“I’m certainly one of those people now, who is a little more circumspect when I read the headlines in the press,” she said.

While acknowledging that some bee populations are experiencing die-offs and colony collapse, Thompson attributed this to — among other things — the now ubiquitous varroa mite and the diseases it brings with it, such as deformed wing virus.

From the Manitoba Co-operator website: Temperature swings hard on insects

“Viruses are a big challenge, and they’ve become an enormous challenge in the presence of varroa,” she said. “So again pesticides, not a major problem.”

An influx of inexperienced beekeepers may also be part of the issue, according to the Syngenta researcher.

“This is another challenge, how do you train those new beekeepers in good bee health… you need healthy bees, and people cannot just go and buy a colony, put it in the garden and keep bees, it’s a commitment,” she said.

Poor weather, with long cold and wet periods, has also affected bee colonies in recent years, Thompson added.

Fear of a European-style ban on neonicotinoids has now prompted action by some Canadian farm groups, including Grain Growers of Canada and the Manitoba Corn Growers Association.

“I have been working with my beekeeper neighbours for a number of years now and they have never indicated that neonicotinoids are a problem for their bees,” said Dennis Thiessen, director of the Corn Growers Association.

A submission presented to Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency by the Grain Growers asserts that a decision to restrict neonicotinoid use in Canada “will majorly impact Canadian farmers’ ability to compete, and, in fact, increase the need for foliar spraying.”

Thompson urged Canadian producers to keep fighting against a neonicotinoid ban and make their voices heard.

“From a personal perspective, I would say the farmers have no voice… I heard no comments on how this would impact agriculture,” she said.

About the author


Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist with the Manitoba Co-operator. She has previously reported for the the Metros, Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.


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  • John

    Yes lets through all the previous study’s out the window and accept Helen Thomson’s work as the holly bible.Of course she doubts all the neonicotinoid research, if she didn’t she would not be working for Syngenta now, would she?

  • Helen Thompsom previously worked for the UK Government’s Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) where she was the chief bee-scientist. See Guardian article at this link.

    “A key government scientist whose research was used by ministers to argue against a ban on pesticides thought to harm bees is to join Syngenta, the chemical giant which manufactures one of the insecticides.

    Dr Helen Thompson will leave the government’s Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) to join Syngenta on 1 September. Thompson led a field trial of the effect of neonicotinoids – the world’s most widely used insecticides – on bees, which was fast-tracked and frequently cited by ministers – although the UK subsequently failed to block a two-year ban in Europe on the pesticides after 15 other EU nations voted in favour.

    “Government policy should be informed by unbiased and disinterested scientific research,” said Joan Walley MP, chair of the environmental audit committee, whose report in April accused the environment secretary Owen Paterson’s department of “extraordinary complacency” over bees and pesticides. “This principle is undermined if the government research agency (FERA) is too close to the pesticides industry and if scientists are zigzagging between the two.”

    Thompson was asked to conduct field studies on bumblebees – placing some near neonic-treated canola fields and some in untreated fields. After wasting a huge amount of money on this trial, she was forced to admit that it was a complete failure, because the ‘control’ colonies were in fact contaminated with neonics. The conclusion was that: “there is NOWHERE in the English landscape that is FREE of neonics – so it is impossible to conduct a proper ‘control’ experiment.”

    After presiding over this Scienctific disaster, Thompson then announced she was moving to work for Syngenta – the manufacturer of neonicotoids. In doing this she was walking in the footsteps of Dr Peter Campbell – the Head of Science for Syngenta – was previously the Head of the Pesticides Regulation Agency for the UK.

    So, what is evident from this little farce, is that there is NO SEPARATION between the Pesticide Regulators, the Pesticide Manufacturers and the Govt Bee Scientists – either in the UK or the USA. Thompson obviously sings from the same hymn sheet as Syngenta – the manufacturer of neonicotinoids – because she is PAID TO DO SO.

    Many observers have commented that all she has done is moved from one office to another – she was singing Syngenta’s songs even when she was being paid by the UK Taxpayer to allegedly ‘regulate’ Syngenta’s bee killing poisons.

    It has been announced that Dr. Helen Thompson, the UK government’s senior Bee Scientist at the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) is to join Syngenta, a leading manufacturer of insecticides, on 1st of Septemberi. The fact that the UK’s leading bee-scientist and ‘bees and pesticides risk assessor’, can simply ‘jump ship’ to join the staff of Syngenta, which she was supposedly ‘regulating’ reveals a massive ‘conflict of interest’. This will lead many to conclude that: “the UK has no effective pesticide-regulation”; the convergence of interests between ‘bee-health-regulators’ and ‘pesticide-manufacturer’ makes ‘regulator’ and ‘regulated’ indistinguishable from each other.

    As an eco-toxicologist, Dr. Thompson led the Environmental Risk Team at the UK’s FERA. She has produced many publications, some of them for industry-players like Syngentaii ; she also represented the UK as FERA’s ‘bee expert’, at meetings of EFSA and other bodies. She led a study into the toxic impact of neonicotinoid pesticides on bumblebees, which was widely criticized as disastrous and flawediii. As former Secretary and current Chairman of the ICPPRiv Bee Protection Group, Helen Thompson’s reported views could well have been scripted by the pesticide industry: Her publicationsv dismissed and discounted peer-reviewed Science studiesvi which confirmed the disastrous impact of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees. She contributed to reportsvii, which minimize and divert attention away from linked issues of global bee-deaths and pesticides. She has spoken publicly, in press and media, to minimize and dismiss concerns about bee deaths and pesticides, most famously on the UK’s Channel Four television broadcast in 2011viii.

    The FERA advised the UK government to oppose the European ban on neonicotinoid pesticides. This was in complete opposition to the demands of British civil society and the unanimous recommendations of the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committeeix, which fully endorsed the EU’s proposed ban on neonicotinoid insecticides.

    This case of ‘jumping ship’ to work for the pesticide industry, echoes that of French civil servant Anne Alix, a pesticide-risk-assessor, who served on many international working groups on honey bees, (ICPBR, EPPO, OECD and the EFSA) often in senior posts. Dr. Alix left the French Ministry of Agriculture in 2011 to join the pesticide company Dow AgroSciences. Dr Alix collaborated closely with Dr Helen Thompson in these pro-pesticide activities.

    A FERA spokeswoman said “there is no conflict of interest” in Helen Thompson leaving her Regulator post to join pesticide manufacturer Syngenta. But how can anyone trust a ‘so-called’ bee-scientist who was paid to advise pesticide manufacturers, at the same time as she was supposedly giving neutral, unbiased advice to UK policy makers, on bee health and pesticide risk assessment?

    For the European Beekeeping Coordination, such biased misinformation is intended to ‘muddy the waters’ and prevent politicians making clear decisions on the controversial topic of pesticides and bee-deaths. They serve the interests of the pesticide industry rather than to foster bee-protection.

    The European Beekeeping Coordination urges the European authorities and Member States to outlaw these suspicious career-moves between ‘Pesticide Regulation Agency’ and Pesticide Manufacturer. Public authorities must only employ truly independent scientists who can furnish them with independent, unbiased information. Measures should also be taken to control aggressive pesticide industry lobbying against public institutions and regulators.

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