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).
This article ( (17) May 5, 2014 : L’UICN, Syngenta et le déclin des bourdons) responds to an April 2014 IUCN press release on threats to pollinators, European bumblebees.
4.III.1. The report
According to this report, “30 of the 68 species of the genus Bombus found on the continent are in decline and 12 are threatened with extinction.” The organization specifies:
“Climate change, intensification of agriculture and changes in agricultural land use are the main threats these species face” (17)
4.III.2. The polemic
“Nothing, a priori, that is controversial. However, solicited by Le Monde, several researchers are very cautious about the wording of the text. Words barely covered, some see it as the influence of ongoing talks between the biodiversity conservation organization and Syngenta, a major producer of agricultural insecticides. (17)
You can already see the insinuation that will be the theme of the entire article: that of a collusion of interest between IUCN and agribusiness. Note here that S. Foucart’s formulation makes the accuracy of his remarks very defensible: there is no doubt that “some” have this opinion. This type of formulation makes it possible to endorse any speech that is too questionable to be seen as its bearers. Here are a few examples that should help you put this practice into perspective: “some see this as a sign that the death penalty should be brought back”; “Some see it as proof that immigrants are delinquents”, and so on.
“The word ‘pesticide’ appears only once in the press release and again in the fifth paragraph, in a quote attributed to a European official,” squeaks an apidologist who requested anonymity. “I have never seen clear evidence so far linking bumblebee and bee declines to climate change,” adds Dave Goulson, professor at the University of Sussex (UK) and specialist in biology pollinators. “ (17)
This is the heart of the controversy: the absence of the term “pesticide”. Yet IUCN does speak of “intensification of agriculture“. The suspicion caused by this absence would nevertheless be reinforced by the recommendations:
” That’s not all. The solutions proposed by the IUCN in its press release to protect wild pollinators are precisely those recommended by the agrochemical industry: “establishment of borders and buffer strips around agricultural land rich in flowers” and “preservation of meadows”. At no time has the IUCN mentioned restricting the use of certain plant protection products – a solution that has already been partially implemented at European level, with the moratorium in force since December 2013, in particular on three molecules called “neonicotinoids”. “ (17)
Note how insignificant these elements are. They will however feed 12 paragraphs attempting to sell a collusion between IUCN and Syngenta…
4.III.3. The negotiations
“For Jean-Christophe Vié, deputy director of the IUCN species program, these suspicions amount to ‘slander’. “We don’t receive funds from Syngenta,” he says. There are ongoing discussions, but there is no agreement reached. If an agreement is reached, we will provide the information on our website, posting the terms. This is our policy of transparency. The prospect of such an agreement is causing tensions within the organization. These have been simmering since Syngenta’s participation in the IUCN World Conservation Congress, held in Jeju (South Korea) in September 2012. The Swiss agrochemist did not respond to requests from the World. (17)
By specifically citing the IUCN executive, S. Foucart takes some distance from his remarks, implying that they would be questionable (while there is nothing shocking or explicitly contested). It is interesting to see that, depending on the context, the same practice (citing a third party) can have different meanings (we have seen that this could also be used to endorse the speech of a third party).
Then the mention of “tensions within the organization” is of no use, except, again, to create an atmosphere of doubt and plots. Likewise, the mention of Syngenta’s refusal to answer implies that the company would have something to hide, without contributing anything: I do not see why they should have agreed to speak with this journalist who had shown his activism for years.
“According to an internal IUCN letter obtained by Le Monde, discussions are well and truly underway. The document, dated March 5, calls for a one-and-a-half-day “high-level meeting” between a dozen IUCN officials and as many senior executives from Swiss society. Scheduled for April, the meeting was postponed, according to our information, in May. It is made possible by decision C / 82/19 of the Council of IUCN, which makes it possible to “explore the potential for collaboration between IUCN and Syngenta”, with a view to deciding on a “future contractual relationship. ‘by the end of 2014’. The letter specifies that one of the objectives pursued is “to identify areas of convergence and divergence [between the two organizations] in order to achieve tangible and positive changes” and “to create a space for constructive dialogue on the points of disagreement “… “ (17)
This paragraph is extraordinary in that it does not contain any concrete information useful in assessing the existence of a potential conflict of interest. However, the choice to present these elements is not neutral:
- On the one hand, it suggests that there is indeed something to be inferred from it.
- On the other hand, the author chooses extracts that remain very vague about the nature of the discussions between IUCN and Syngenta, leaving it to the imagination to interpret.
In addition, this paragraph evokes the theme of journalistic investigation: inaccessible documents (an “internal mail” (obtained legally of course?) and a decision of the organisation), reinforcing the idea that there is has something hidden at work.
Thus, the reader can, if he presumes that S. Foucart gives information in this paragraph, read “the letters and internal texts of IUCN implicate it in a collusion of interests with Syngenta”. This, even though there is actually nothing to remember.
“In addition, Jean-Christophe Vié recalls that the assessments of the organization are entrusted to outside scientists. Still, Mr. Vié himself admits to being “surprised” that the five experts appointed by IUCN “did not tick the “pesticides box””. In the list of threats identified for each of the 30 species in decline, climate change is mentioned for 23 of them, alongside other causes, such as “changes in agricultural practices”.” (17)
Here the “surprise” of J-C. Vié is used to discredit his position and cast doubt on the absence of a conflict of interest. The end of the paragraph prepares the next passage by underlining the contrast between not checking the pesticide box as a threat, which would be “surprising”, and checking climate change.
So this whole part is disproportionate to the information it carries. I have summarized it in the summaries (Annex 1):
“For Jean-Christophe Vié, IUCN executive, these suspicions amount to “slander”. The organization is reportedly not receiving funds from Syngenta and, while discussions have been underway since 2012, there would be no deal reached. Still, Mr Vié “himself admits to being” surprised “that the five experts appointed by the IUCN did not tick the” pesticides box “”. ” (17)
The other elements are details that only help to construct the innuendo that I have detailed.
4.III.4. Climate change, pesticides and bumblebees
In this passage, S. Foucart will defend that climate change is not considered a threat to bumblebees in the scientific literature.
“For several researchers interviewed by Le Monde, the shoe pinches. Because only one duly published experimental study provides the basis for attributing these declines to climate change. Conducted by two researchers from the University of Mons (Belgium) – one of whom was also a member of the IUCN panel – the study in question suggests, in fact, a correlation between the abundance of bumble bee populations and warming in a region of the Pyrenees. But it remains limited to a small area and does not seem to have convinced the scientific community too much: published in 2012 in the Annales de la société entomologique de France, it has, according to the Scopus database, never been cited by further work.
“However, there are many studies showing the effects of agricultural insecticides on bumblebees, protests a biologist. In particular, Penelope Whitehorn [University of Stirling] published a major work in the journal Science in 2012 showing that exposure of common bumblebees to doses of imidacloprid [a neonicotinoid insecticide] found in nature, reduced by 85% the production of queens in a colony. “
The study, one of the most cited on the subject, concluded: “Given the scale at which neonicotinoids are used, they are likely to have a significant negative impact on bumblebee populations in the developed world. About 15 studies, published over the past two years, document a variety of deleterious effects of agricultural insecticides on bumblebees. “ (17)
Here, we may be surprised: the negative effect of global warming on biodiversity in general has been the subject of numerous publications and has been for a very long time. Nevertheless, the author actually uses a rather sophisticated manipulation: he puts forward two innuendo:
- The experts should have relied only on studies known to the researchers questioned by S. Foucart.
- Only studies dealing specifically with the effect of global warming on bumblebees would be relevant. However, the effects of global warming are still extremely small compared to what they are (probably) going to be. If the fauna and flora are specific to each region, it is not for nothing: climatic conditions are important. Experts might have been able to extrapolate the likely consequences from other data.
So what he says is reasonably credible: It is uncertain whether a study specifically focused on European bumblebees. Better, S. Foucart echoes here the “researchers” that he would have questioned. In the worst case, he can always discard a possible mistake on them. This is the technique of improper quotation, we studied in chapter 3.
Note that it does not specify what type of researcher this is, as there are a multitude of different specialties in biology (the vast majority of which are far removed from the impact of climate on bumblebees).
4.III.5. Unequal debate
“The threats listed for bumblebees summarize what can lead to extinction risks at European level, and are not intended to be a complete description of all threats to the species in question at the local level, answers Ana Nieto, responsible for the conservation of European biodiversity at IUCN. In fact, it should be noted that very widespread species can often experience severe declines in some areas, for example due to pesticides, but remain common elsewhere. According to the IUCN assessment, a dozen species are even seeing their populations increase overall. Ms. Nieto adds that the only link of interest declared by the five experts is funding of 8,000 euros obtained from agrochemical companies in 2009 by the University of Mons, from which two of the five experts are.
As for the evidence making warming a major part of the decline, Nieto replied that it also relies on preliminary results from the European STEP (Status and Trends of European Pollinators) program, which has not yet been published.” (17)
The experts therefore relied on studies to which the researchers interviewed by S. Foucart did not have access. Note that he does not at any time discuss substance, such as the study protocol or its results. However, these are not alarmists and therefore hardly compatible with what he had just said.
Instead, he will raise the issue of conflict of interest, presumably to discredit the study. Indeed, some readers will say to themselves “these are only industrial denials, as usual”, read the paragraph quickly and only retain the information: “there was a conflict of interest for 2 of the 5 experts.”
4.III.6. A new target
“Asked by Le Monde, the coordinator of the STEP project, Simon Potts (University of Reading), cited in the IUCN press release, defends the work of the organization. He points to the fact that “while pesticides can be potentially involved in population declines, there is no direct evidence.” The studies showing their deleterious effects concern, according to him, only the most common species (Bombus terrestris), not the really endangered species, some of which do not live in field crops areas.” (17)
The author thus “slips” on Mrs. Nieto’s very serious objections by turning her narrative towards Simon Potts. The remainder of the article will thus aim to question the integrity of the latter.
“This state of knowledge allows for a variety of opinions. Reacting to the European moratorium on three neonicotinoid insecticides, Mr Potts declared in April 2013 to the Guardian: “The moratorium is excellent news for pollinators. The weight of evidence given by researchers clearly indicates that we need to phase out neonicotinoids. There are several alternatives to their use, and farmers will benefit from healthy pollinator populations. “
But six months later, before the ad hoc British parliamentary committee, the researcher spoke the opposite way: “In the short term, a ban would have enormous negative implications for the livelihoods of farmers and for food security. “
Why such a turnaround? “As any good scientist should be, I’m open to new evidence, and my opinions may change with new findings,” says Potts, without elaborating.” (17)
The criticism made by S. Foucart is absurd on three levels.
- The two postures are not about the same subjects: an additional source of mortality does not mean additional risk of extinction. Threatened bumblebees are not necessarily in agricultural areas and exposed enough to pesticides to jeopardize their species. Climate change has a much larger and systematic scale.
- The two postures are not contradictory: one may wish for the elimination of NNIs without believing that they will probably extinguish bumblebees.
- There is a 6 month interval between the two opinions.
However, S. Foucart suggests that it would be suspicious, always insinuating that there is something hidden, “eel under rock”. Once again, he presents the speeches of the person he is “fighting” as not very credible.
4.III.7. A sophisticated effect: the reversal of the burden of proof
The logical construction of the article is very interesting in that it reverses the burden of proof. Here, S. Foucart tries to demonstrate the existence of a conflict of interest which would explain the fact that the IUCN would not have retained pesticides as a risk that could cause the extinction of bumblebees. In the end, the author treats the subject as if it were for IUCN to demonstrate that it and the work on which the experts it has mobilized are based are not the object of any suspicion of “conflict of interest”.
The presupposition behind this reasoning is that all institutions deciding in any way in favor of companies would be tainted by conflicts of interest and that only those demonstrating their absolute lack of connection with industrialists would not be “rotten”. We find the “double standards” that we have already spoken of. This message is obviously not made explicit.
Worse, it will not affect everyone equally. Indeed, this presupposition is necessary for the speech of S. Foucart to have a meaning. If you read this article with no confidence in it, then you will not be sensitive to the presupposition at all (you will just think “this is nonsense!”). On the contrary, if you have faith in the sincerity and skill of the journalist, you will be forced to integrate this assumption to make this belief coherent.
This is really a weapon of surgical disinformation, which has a precise target: other readers will not be able to clearly identify it.
4.III.8. A confusion effect
Finally, this article mobilizes an effect of accumulation or confusion: the elements follow one another in what seems to be an impenetrable mess. At the start, we talk about an arrangement between the IUCN, represented by M. Vié, then another executive of the organization presents arguments, then S. Foucart discusses the supposed conflicts of interest of a member of the organization. having produced one of the documents on which the experts hired by the IUCN were based… Each subject is barely touched on without, as we have seen, adding the slightest substance to the argument. The confusion is such that, even after reading the article several times, I confused Mr Vie and Mr Potts …
This confusion is fueled by the lack of logical connectors between the different elements. No “because” or “therefore”: all the connections are left to guess.
This “clutter” aspect helps to conceal the absence of a convincing argument and to highlight the many innuendos and assumptions. In the end, we only remember the existence of conflicts of interest that would have influenced IUCN. In short, the argument promoted by S. Foucart.
You see that the understatements are tangible here: IUCN would have been bought / influenced by Syngenta not to mention pesticides in its report. Even though the arguments opposed to S. Foucart’s theory are very reasonable, he will succeed in presenting them implicitly as being simple justifications presented by people caught in default.
It’s an important lesson in public relations. By responding to a journalist like S. Foucart, you are going on his turf. He will be free to present your words in any way that suits him.