This is part of the book “Stéphane Foucart et les néonicotinoïdes. The World and disinformation 1“ where I show the journalist misinforms (= false or misleading statements) the reader. One of the myths he develops is that the regulatory response against NNIs has been delayed by industry influence. 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).

First, S. Foucart greatly exaggerates the extent of the consensus on a decline in biodiversity, mainly through the abusive mobilization of the study by Hallman et al. (2017). It repeats the heavily biased study by Hallman et al. (2017) and greatly expands its reach.

Abusive mobilization of Hallman et coll. (2017)

This is the journalist’s flagship study, to which he refers in 17 of his 71 articles: “Hallmann CA, Sorg M, Jongejans E, Siepel H, Hofland N, Schwan H, et al. (2017) More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE 12 (10): e0185809.”

We will see that the presentation and use of it is far from flawless. While it only concerns a few German protected areas, the author will generalize and attempt to extend its scope to all German protected areas (36) (37), to “Germany” (43) (51) and even to “Europe” (39) (41) (45), sometimes by affirming it in the conditional. (37) (39) (51) (53) (54) In addition, the areas studied go from “representative of Western European low-altitude nature protection areas embedded in a human-dominated landscape” to “representative of most landscapes in Western Europe dominated by human activities.” (48) (53) (54)

Finally, while the study simply evokes the possibility that this decline is caused in part by “the intensification of agricultural practices”, the journalist makes the authors say, directly (36) (56) (44) or implicitly (54) that the most likely cause would be the increased use of pesticides and, above all, NNIs. He will even say a perfect untruth, which is quite rare:

“The only parameter that the researchers were unable to control is the nature and evolution of crop protection techniques (ie pesticides) on the farms surrounding these protected areas.” (56)

Thus, while this study has a very debatable scientific interest, S. Foucart presents it implicitly as defining a clear consensus, misinforms about its scope and distorts the conclusions of the authors relative to the causality of the observed phenomenon.
The subject deserves to be deepened, so we will study this sham in detail.

The study itself

A team of researchers used “Malaysian traps” between 1989 and 2014 on 63 locations in German protected areas “representative of Western European low-altitude nature protection areas embedded in a human-dominated landscape on different years:

Table 1. Overview of malaise-trap samples sizes.

Most, 37, of the locations were studied for only one year, 20 locations over two years, 5 over three years and 1 over four years.

They declare to observe a 76.7% decline in above-ground insect biomass over the period studied. This decline would be “very similar across locations that were sampled more than once.”

Fig 2. Temporal distribution of insect biomass.

The authors study other variables to try to identify what could be the cause of this decline. To take climate change into account, the authors added the averages of temperature, precipitation and wind force, provided by 169 climate stations located within 100 km of the traps.

It would also have taken into account land use within 200m of the traps:

S3 Fig. Land use and plant species richness changes.

They would indeed have observed that « Preliminary analysis of the relationship between log biomass and landuse variables, on a subset of the trap locations, indicated that land use elements at 200m radius better predicted insect biomass than elements at 500 and 1000m radius, similar to findings elsewhere for wild bees. » (p.6) Finally, they would have taken into account the changes linked to the insect habitat (grasses, bushes and trees) and the Ellenberg indicators (nitrogen, pH, light, temperature, humidity) within 50 m of the traps during the same seasons as the sample collection.

They observe that no variable can explain the observed fall:

Fig 5. Marginal effects of temporal changes in considered covariates on insect biomass.

According to the authors, this would show that the landscape and climate change could not explain this major decline in biomass. The fact that the latter extends over all the durations studied, regardless of the type of habitat or the configuration of the landscape, would suggest that large-scale factors are involved.

The authors consider only two elements of this scale. First, climatic variables were not taken into account, such as prolonged droughts or lack of light. They believe that “agricultural intensification (e.g. pesticide usage, year-round tillage, increased use of fertilizers and frequency of agronomic measures » that [they] could not incorporate in [their] analyses, may form a plausible cause.” (p.15)

Indeed, the reserves in which the traps were placed are said to be almost all (94%) surrounded by agricultural fields. Part of the explanation could therefore be that adjacent fields drain part of the insect populations. Finally, they recall that the intensification of agriculture has been associated with a global decline in the biodiversity of plants, insects, birds and other species in the current landscape.

A questionable reach

The results of this study seem insignificant, mostly because the samples were not taken from the same places. They don’t monitor a progression over time, other than in 2014, the year it looks like they took stock. However, the progression is presented as linear … Walter Krämer, German statistics professor, had notably told Die Welt (in german, I translated):

“[The sample was made beyond the usual scientific seriousness. These are random locations that have been changed again and again. The data are therefore of poor quality and cannot be generalized. From a statistical point of view, many things went suboptimally.]”

Expertenstreit – Wie zählt man Insekten richtig?

This is all the more problematic as the study has a problem raised by a comment under the article Plos One, taken up by Philippe Stoop on the site and which is clearly apparent to anyone looking at the data produced by Hallman et al. :

Mean insect biomass catch per day as a function of year. Blue symbols (n=15) represent the years 1989-2006, red symbols (n=10) represent the years 2007-2016.
Crédits :

We can clearly see a break between 2006 and 2007. We also see that the first point, 1989, seems to be an anomaly: the weight of insects captured decreases by around 40% the following year, and the median of this period is to this level …

Let’s go back to the graph produced by simply adding a red bar to show the cleavage between the two periods. The problem is visually obvious:

We do not see a clear trend different from stagnation to the left and right of the bar. In short, the authors rely on poor quality data, observe that they do not find a cause for their evolution and deduce that the only possibility is that agriculture is responsible… It seems scientifically ‘a little’ light to me.

We can also ask ourselves: Why agricultural changes, which the authors present as “the only variable” which could explain the observed fall, are not controlled? Shouldn’t this be a hypothesis to test? In addition, it does not seem very difficult: it would have been sufficient to define the most problematic practices, study their penetration over time in the surrounding farms (Interviews? Ministry data?) And compare with the evolution of the populations of insects.

Finally, it should be noted that these researchers observed a 75% drop in the biomass of insects captured between 1989 and… 1991. Either before the introduction of NNIs in Europe…

A questionable interpretation

The journalist refers to this study 17 times. From its first citation on May 29, 2017 to the last article studied (March 26, 2021), there have been 42 articles. He therefore quoted it in more than 1 in 3 articles over this period… The author often gives the study a scope that it does not. Take the article from October 18, 2017 (35), dedicated to the study.

He claims the study blamed the observed decline on intensification of agriculture. While this is clearly implied (which leaves the integrity of researchers in doubt), it is absolutely not asserted by its authors (and, a fortiori, not demonstrated).

The author also writes:

“The major factor explaining such a rapid collapse,” argue the authors, “is the intensification of agricultural practices (increased use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, etc.).” (35)

However, Hallman et al. (2017) do not even mention this term … S. Foucart attempts, through D. Goulson, to generalize:

Formally, the measures published only concern Germany. “But France or the UK have very similar farming systems that use the same inputs as in Germany,” explains Dave Goulson (University of Sussex, UK), co-author of this work. We can’t say for sure, but I would therefore say that there is a good “chance” that Germany is representative of a much larger situation. If this is indeed the case, then we are facing an impending ecological catastrophe.”” (35)

While this is indeed one of the study’s co-authors, this is not a conclusion that can be drawn: he gives only his own opinion. The journalist thus claims to justify the scope he gave at the beginning of the article to the study:

“In less than three decades, insect populations have probably fallen by almost 80% in Europe.” (35)

Often incorrect references

The journalist presents this study in a very variable way. Here are how he references it after article (35):

  • Since 1989, German protected areas have lost around 80% of their flying insect populations. A figure which most likely reflects the situation in the rest of Europe. The most plausible cause identified by researchers is the increased use of pesticides, including neonicotinoids used in seed coatings.” (36)
  • Work published at the end of October has for the first time quantified the disaster of conventional farming practices on biodiversity. In thirty years, nearly 80% of flying insects have disappeared from protected natural areas in Germany and everything indicates that this observation is valid elsewhere in Europe.” (37)
  • “And in this wonderful world, 75% to 80% of flying insects have not disappeared from Europe in less than three decades – as suggested, for the real world, a study published last October.” (39)
  • One of the latest was published in October 2017 in the journal PloS One. She notes a rapid collapse of all insect populations in Europe, with, as the main suspect, the intensification of agriculture, and in particular its appetite for insecticide treatments based on neonics. In total, according to this work carried out in Germany, 75% to 80% of the biomass of flying insects have disappeared in less than thirty years.” (41)
  • According to their work, published in October in the journal PloS One, the number of flying insects has declined from 75% to 80% in Germany.” (43)
  • “populations of flying insects may have declined in Europe by nearly 80% over the past three decades, according to a German study published in October 2017.” (45)
  • For the SNPN, the urgency is in one number: “Recent research in Germany, adds the learned society, has shown a collapse of the total biomass of flying insects, of nearly 80% in three decades.”” (46)
  • A study published in October 2017 in the journal PLoS One indeed indicates that the quantity of flying insects fell by more than 75% between 1989 and 2016, in some sixty rural areas in Germany, representative of most of the landscapes of Western Europe dominated by human activities. With, among the main suspects, the “new technologies of plant protection”, according to the researchers.” (48)
  • A recent German study indicates that, over the last twenty-seven years, the biomass of flying insects has decreased by more than 75% across the Rhine and probably in all European landscapes dominated by human activities. – what everyone can see in the agonizing and unchanging cleanliness of our windshields.” (51)
  • Study carried out on 63 German protected areas. The decline in the biomass of winged insects measured in Germany plausibly mirrors the decline in all lowland areas of western Europe dominated by human activities.” (53) (54)
  • The biomass of flying insects fell by more than 75% between 1989 and 2016 in around 60 protected areas in Germany. […] This abrupt decline in the abundance of insects in the European countryside coincides with the introduction of new generations of systemic pesticides – neonicotinoids and fipronil – used preventively as coating seeds, on millions of hectares of large cultures.” (54)
  • According to a study, published in October 2017 in the journal PloS One, the biomass of flying insects fell by more than 75% between 1989 and 2016 in around 60 protected areas in Germany. […] Research published in October 2017, based on data from 63 German protected areas monitored over 27 years shows a decline in overall flying insect biomass of 75%. […] The only parameter that the researchers were unable to control is the nature and evolution of crop protection techniques (ie pesticides) in the farms surrounding these protected areas.” (56)
  • Research published in October 2017 using data from 63 German protected areas monitored over 27 years shows a decline in overall flying insect biomass of 75%.” (57)

Ainsi vous voyez plusieurs malfaçons :

  1. Representativeness: the areas studied go from “representative of Western European low-altitude nature protection areas embedded in a human-dominated landscape” to “representative of most of the landscapes of Western Europe dominated by human activities.” (48) (53) (54) The mention “protected area” often disappears.
  2. The extent: we go from 63 protected areas in Germany to “German protected areas” (36) (37), “Germany” (43) (51) or “Europe” (39) (41) (45). He will use the conditional to say that it extends across Europe (“A figure that most likely reflects the situation in the rest of Europe.” (36); “as suggested” the study (39), “Everything indicates that this observation is valid elsewhere in Europe” (37)…). (51) (53) (54)
  3. The cause: we go from “the intensification of agricultural practices are a plausible cause” to “The most plausible cause identified by researchers being the intensification of the use of pesticides, including neonicotinoids used in seed coating” (36) or even “pesticides” (56). The most radical sham is notably the mention of the article (54): “This abrupt decline in the abundance of insects in the European countryside coincides with the introduction of the new generations of systemic pesticides – neonicotinoids and fipronil – used preventively by coating seeds, on millions of hectares of field crops. This is not evident from the study, or even from the data.

The author therefore hijacks the meaning of the study extensively. In short, you have a very “borderline” scientific study (polite way of saying it doesn’t demonstrate anything and is basically unusable) which is abused by S. Foucart.

But it is not all …

A scandalous diversion

The interpretation given to us by the journalist in article (44) somewhat explains all the diversions he makes of this study.

““We show that this decline is evident regardless of habitat type and that changes in weather conditions [temperature, precipitation and wind speed], land use and habitat characteristics cannot explain this. global decline,” the researchers conclude. As the authors did not have access in the regions studied to changes in the use of plant protection products by farmers, they were unable to correlate the observed decline with pesticides.”

It leaves to the reader’s imagination the reasons why the authors did not have this access. It obviously implies that this data would have been refused by the ministry or would not exist (which seems to me doubtful). However, it does not appear from the study that they sought to obtain it. They simply claim that they could not control for the variable “intensification of agriculture”.

But their work helps to rule out the main possible causes unrelated to agriculture. Changes in the practice of this are therefore the most plausible causes because, they write, “the intensification of agriculture, including the disappearance of margins and new methods of crop protection [that is, say the coating of seeds by new generations of systemic insecticides] is associated with an overall decline in the diversity of plants, insects, birds and other common species”.”

The study, as we have already shown, does not claim that agriculture is involved, nor that it is “the most plausible cause”, but “could” be “a plausible cause”.

Note that here the journalist explains the juxtaposition effect used by Hallman et al. Indeed, the latter do not specify this “because”. More broadly, he says what the study suggests. We thus see in the hand of S. Foucart himself the power of the insinuation to transform, in the reader, a suggestion into an affirmation.

Here you have the final slide: how to go from ‘intensification of agriculture’ (which included, let’s remember, (« e.g. pesticide usage, year-round tillage, increased use of fertilizers and frequency of agronomic measures ») to” the NNI “? This, even though the study does not even mention NNIs.

The authors of this work have little doubt about the involvement of neonicotinoids in the decline of biodiversity in general. “We must adopt international restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids without delay and prevent their replacement by equally dangerous products,” write researchers who participated in this publication, in a column published in Le Monde. “

This assertion is simply false. The mention “The authors” is thus interpreted as “all the authors”, while only 2, Dave Goulson and Hans de Kroon, out of 12 participated in the said opinion paper. It is also misleading, suggesting that this is the result of the study, when it is only an opinion. But the journalist achieved his goal: he sold the idea that this study would prove beyond a reasonable doubt how dangerous NNIs are.

(Seppi also commented on this article, highlighting other points: These funny birds from CNRS, MNHN and Le Monde Planète (episode VI) )

The extent of the decline in the scientific literature

There is hardly a consensus on the extent of the “decline” in biodiversity and pollinators. After quick research, it is rather uncertainty that seems to be the dominant posture:

“Despite the studies carried out, it is still difficult to clearly perceive the geographic extent and intensity of the decline due to a lack of reliable data as well as a lack of bee taxonomic experts. In addition, there are few meta-analyzes jointly interested in (i) the evolution of biodiversity considering all taxonomic groups of pollinators, either in terms of abundance or specific diversity; (ii) the phenology of pollinators (eg, spring bees, summer bees); (iii) over periods corresponding to several decades (but see Biesmeijer et al., 2006 and Carvalheiro et al., 2013); (iv) robust and standardized census methodologies in order to be able to compare data among the diversity of studies (Westphal et al., 2008). Data on the diversity and especially the abundance of pollinators remain sparse, except for a few taxonomic groups, or geographic regions (Freitas et al., 2009; Vanbergen, 2013; Nieto et al., 2014). For example, a red list has been established for wild bees in Europe. The authors of this list estimated that more than 50 % of the data relating to wild bees are deficient following a lack of in-depth monitoring (Nieto et al., 2014). Great Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium nevertheless have adapted databases allowing the monitoring of the distribution of pollinators at the spatial and temporal level (Carvalheiro et al., 2013; Potts et al., 2015).”

Noël et al. 2018

“Seasonal losses of western honey bees in Europe and North America vary greatly by country, state or province and from year to year, but in recent decades (at least since l large-scale introduction of Varroa), it has often been higher than the 10-15% previously considered normal (established but incomplete) 1. Data for other regions of the world are largely lacking {,, 3.3.2, 3.3.3,3.3.4, 3.3.5}.”

(Pots et al. 2016, p.21)

“In conclusion, robust data are needed from all parts of the world to assess the status and trends of insect abundances, biomass, species richness, and the functions (beneficial and harmful to humans) they perform. Ultimately, this requires a step-change in funding (Leather, 2019). Hyping-up the situation based on incomplete and potentially biased data may generate necessary short-term attention, but it could ultimately backfire if it subsequently turns out that some of the claims have been exaggerated.””

Thomas, Jones and Hartley 2019

Biesmeijer et al. (2006) observe that there would have already been a decline in bees in the 1980s and that this does not seem to affect syrphs (which would even have tended to grow in the Netherlands). Unlike climate skepticism, these criticisms are not made by a few isolated and discredited researchers, but by many researchers. The only consensus seems to be that there are many alarming studies, reassuring others, that the whole is worrying and needs to be deepened.

The effect on agricultural production

This question of the decline of biodiversity is all the more questionable as S. Foucart gives it a specific scope:

“The decline of pollinators, bees, butterflies and birds, poses a serious threat to global food production. And endangers the livelihoods of millions of people.” (25)

The decline is expected to be such that it endangers pollination. However, no data is provided in this regard. Nowhere does the author show that the decrease in pollinators would be such as to endanger pollination.

Note that the reporter also exaggerates the impact of pollination on agricultural production. Indeed, according to him, bees are “pollinating insects essential to 84% of plants cultivated in Europe”. (15) I don’t know where he got that number from.

Along the same lines, the IPBES report published in February 2016 estimated that “pollination-dependent crops contribute 35% by volume of crop production globally.” (25) However, the error of good faith can be defended here, the figure being very ambiguous. When IPBES specifies, the figure is much less impressive:

“It is estimated that 5-8% of current global agricultural production, representing an annual market value of $ 235-577 billion (in 2015, US dollars) globally, is directly attributable to animal pollination .” (Potts et al. 2016)

Note that for this damage to occur, all pollination would have to be destroyed. So, without denying that pollination is a very important service, one that must be protected, the journalist exaggerates its scope extraordinarily. It does not seem to me that we have observed in France a drop in productivity linked to a drop in pollination.

I also asked a union of fruit producers (the Association Nationale Pommes Poires (ANPP), bringing together 1,400 farmers) and a technical institute (the Interprofessional Technical Center for Fruits and Vegetables, CTIFL). The first replied that their members have not given them “any information concerning a drop in productivity linked to a possible drop in pollination. The second confirmed that “no decrease in productivity [linked to pollination] has been demonstrated” by their “observations and experiments”. We’re not even talking about a small drop, but no drop! Such a discreet apocalypse…

Page bibliography:

  • Hallmann, Caspar A., Martin Sorg, Eelke Jongejans, Henk Siepel, Nick Hofland, Heinz Schwan, Werner Stenmans, et al. “More than 75 Percent Decline over 27 Years in Total Flying Insect Biomass in Protected Areas.” PloS One 12, no. 10 (2017): e0185809.
  • Noël, Grégoire, Julien Bebermans, Nicolas Gengler, and Frédéric Francis. “Rôle de la transmission des maladies dans le déclin des pollinisateurs – Synthèse bibliographique.” Entomologie Faunistique 71 (October 2018).
  • Potts, Simon G., Vera Imperatriz-Fonseca, Hien T. Ngo, Jacobus C. Biesmeijer, Thomas D. Breeze, Lynn V. Dicks, Lucas A. Garibaldi, Rosemary Hill, Josef Settele, and Adam J. Vanbergen. “Rapport d’évaluation Sur Les Pollinisateurs, La Pollinisation et La Production Alimentaire, Résumé à l’attention Des Décideurs.” IPBES, 2016.