This is part of the book “Stéphane Foucart et les néonicotinoïdes. The World and disinformation 1” in which we analyze in depths a few articles of the corpus. All quotes are translated (by me), except the ones marked between [ ] in the french version (french quotes are to numerous to be marked in this one).

The article ( (64) August 12, 2020 : Avec ou sans floraison, les néonicotinoïdes représentent des risques pour les pollinisateurs) is entirely devoted to the contradiction of the argument for re-authorizing NNIs on beets that pollinators do not visit them.

4.IV.1. Discredit

The first step of the article is to lay down a discrediting framework for the supporters of the argument that S. Foucart will contradict in this article.

” To analyse. After the beet growers, the corn growers in turn want to be able to lift the ban on neonicotinoids. Friday August 7, the day after the press release from the Ministry of Agriculture announcing the reintroduction until 2023, on beet, of this class of pesticides banned since 2018, the corn union called on the government for similar measures.

The success of beets is largely based on an apparent common sense argument: since sugar beets are harvested before flowering, they are not an attractive crop for bees and pollinators. The treatment of beet by coating seeds would therefore be without risk for these insects. Circulated by agribusiness circles and taken up by the Ministry of Agriculture in its communication, this argument has been widely echoed on social networks by elected officials and political leaders. ” (64)

The argument in question is denigrated as piece of language “circulated by agribusiness circles”. Note that he said just before that the reintroduction of NNIs on beets was a “beet farmers success”. He therefore includes the latter in “agribusiness”.

According to a now recurring pattern, he has also been dubbed by scientific personalities generally speaking outside their field of expertise. “If the insecticide was banned for the wrong reasons, it would be a political mistake not to re-authorize it, for example declared, on August 8, on Twitter, the doctor and academic Jean-Loup Salzmann, former president of the Conference of University Presidents (CPU). By coating the seed of a non-flowering plant, there is no danger to foragers. Politics must be based on science.”” (64)

Thus, the only people who would support the contested argument would be those who pick up on elements of agribusiness and scientists “generally speaking outside their purview.”

Note the use of the quote that is used here to discredit: “Look, he makes that argument when he doesn’t speak in his area of expertise.” Also note the “generally”, which disappears completely as the article unfolds.

4.IV.2. Guttation and seed dust

He then presents as valid and indisputable contradictions some very debatable arguments. Let’s take them one by one.

“However, numerous scientific studies have shown that even in the absence of flowering of the treated crops, neonicotinoids represent a high risk for bees, pollinators and insect auxiliaries of crops. Water droplets (or “guttation water”) exuded by plants, and which pollinators may come to drink, are, for example, a route of exposure. This was highlighted in 2009 by Italian researchers, and published by the Journal of Economic Entomology.” (64)

Here we see several things:

  • First, the author expands the field of study: he no longer talks about beets, but about the impact of NNIs in the absence of flowering.
  • Then, we see a very nice juxtaposition effect between the first and the last two sentences. Indeed, he implies that the study he cites would be one of “many scientific works” showing “a high risk to bees.” However, the study in question (Girolami et al., 2009) does not prove that guttation represents a “high risk”, but that the drops in question do indeed contain NNIs. It does not assume that the bees stop there.
  • Finally, the said study relates to corn, not beet. However, a study (Wirtz et al., 2018) observed that the guttation of sugar beets would be “very rare” and the exposure of bees to these droplets would be unlikely. (Solé 2020) We can see here all the interest of the extension, at the beginning of the paragraph, of the frame: thus S. Foucart does not lie, he simply does not talk about beets…

“Another danger is that pneumatic seed drills, which inject coated seeds into the soil, can, by abrasion effect on the seeds, generate clouds of dust. Around treated plots – on vegetation, soil or surface water – this dust deposits insecticide at concentrations that present a risk for certain non-target insects. This effect was shown in 2003 in a study published by the Bulletin of Insectology. “ (64)

The cited study (Greatti 2003) refers to corn planters in… 2001! Not only have the seed drills been improved to drastically limit this risk, but in addition the corn seeds are much larger than the beet seeds:

“”The seeds are not all the same size, they do not have the same surface area. Depending on each seed, the type of coating is not the same, it is adapted”, explains Madame X, specialist in ecotoxicology tests. “You cannot extrapolate from corn seed to beet seed, for example, “which would be like comparing a rugby ball to a ping-pong ball. Obviously, their properties are different.”

Solé 2020

Back to S. Foucart:

“These phenomena are not a fringe science: they were taken into account by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in its 2018 expertise on ‘neonics’. The findings of EFSA – an agency not suspect of environmentalist agenda – had led to the ban of the main neonicotinoids in Europe, in all their uses. Regarding neonically treated sugar beet, EFSA rated the risks of guttation water as “low”, but independent academic work from the industry is lacking on the subject. As for the contamination of the environment around the treated beet plots, the European agency was unable to conclude that there was no risk for bumblebees and solitary bees, due to a lack of data. ” (64)

This passage is very rich:

  • It gives the impression of validating the importance of these mechanics (“they are taken into account by the EFSA”).
  • At the same time, it discredits the agency’s view of guttation as low risk on the grounds that “there is a lack of independent academic work from the industry on the subject.” It does not specify anything and does not justify in any way how this would be a viable argument (why the mere presence among the authors of a scientist with a vague connection to “the industry” would deprive the studies of credibility?)
  • Finally, it presents implicitly the fact that EFSA could not “conclude that there is no risk […] due to lack of data”, as proof that there is indeed a high risk.

Finally, note that by affirming in passing that EFSA is not suspect of environmentalist activities”, it implies (or in any case it is a probable interpretation) that it would therefore be traditionally favorable to industrialists, which is part of its overall argument.

Here we see a mechanism that S. Foucart often uses to deal with objections: he presents questionable arguments as if they were perfectly effective contradictions. At the same time, he turns his sentences subtly enough that they aren’t inaccurate. In this case, this whole paragraph is based on the mention, at the very beginning, of the willingness of corn growers to benefit from the exemptions. The author uses it as a pretext to turn “the viewfinder” towards the question of non-honey plants in general, which allows him to “hit” on beets by talking about corn (which exposes insects much more, for guttation and seedling dust).

4.IV.3. Contamination

The author then presents EFSA’s stance and explains:

“In contrast, EFSA considered that the treatment of sugar beet with neonics was deemed to be ‘high’ risk for all pollinators considered in its assessment, due to contamination of subsequent crops on the treated plots. A very significant proportion of the insecticide applied to seeds, from 80% to over 98% (according to data published in 2003 in the Bulletin of Insectology), indeed remains in the soils. Honey crops or attractive to bees, untreated but sown the following year, can thus be contaminated and present a high risk to pollinators. ” (64)

Nothing shocking here. However, here comes the objection and its treatment:

The agriculture ministry said in its statement that restrictions would be imposed to limit this effect. But, since 2018 and the expertise of EFSA, new work has better documented the great persistence of neonicotinoids in the environment and their ability to diffuse there, without the mechanisms of their migrations being fully elucidated.” (64)

Thus, the author presents himself as offering as more knowledgeable than the EFSA, which would not have taken into account the work according to him to modify its conclusions had it been aware of it. After presenting the EFSA report in a positive way, he uses it to promote his own analysis.

He will then present two studies that we have already seen elsewhere, which show contamination by NNIs of areas that have not been treated for several years or always with these pesticides. As always, he presents them as reflecting the state of the art, as free from any serious contradiction.

He concludes with a very nice juxtaposition effect, with a paragraph recalling the toxicity of NNIs:

“One of the characteristics of neonicotinoids is that they are toxic at very low exposure doses. For example, the application of 60 grams of imidacloprid (the main neonic) per hectare, on the 423,000 hectares of sugar beet cultivated in France, is equivalent to about 25 tonnes of product, or enough to kill 3 million billion bees (4 nanograms of imidacloprid per bee is enough to kill 50% of an exposed population, according to the reference summary published in 2014 in Environmental Science and Pollution Research). Counting one centimeter per hymenoptera, that would represent a chain of dead bees of about 30 billion kilometers, or some 40,000 round trips from the Earth to the Moon. ” (64)

This is irrelevant to the question he was discussing, since the doses of NNI are proportional to their toxicity and this is already taken into account by the EFSA assessment. However, this will strengthen the previous argument by apposition effect: on the one hand we assume a logical link with the previous paragraphs (when there is none) and on the other hand we close the discussion exposed on a feeling of dread, which will come to “mark” the memory (and thus reinforce the idea that the NNI have a frightful effect).

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