This is part of the book “Stéphane Foucart and néonicotinoïds. Le Monde and disinformation 1“ where I show the journalist misinforms (= false or misleading statements) the reader. More specifically, we show here that he presents a false view of agriculture (1.I.4.). 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 author argues that NNIs would be unnecessary based on several studies:
- A study finding no correlation between yields (rapeseed and wheat) depending on the amount of NNI used. (13) Likewise, harvests would have been above average after the moratorium (20).
- The “literature review” of the Center for Food Safety (CFS), an environmental NGO.
- A review of the literature by L. Furlan et al. (2018) including 200 studies (40).
- The experiment that L. Furlan is said to have carried out with a compensation fund in Italy. (37) (46)
We will show that this idea is in itself inconsistent with the rest of his remarks; that his performance comparisons are absurd; that the CFS study has no scientific significance; that the literature review by L. Furlan (who is part of the “Task Force on Systemic Pesticides”) in no way proves the uselessness of NNIs; that the experiment that this same scientist would have conducted has no scientific significance.
First of all, we see several inconsistencies:
- The spread of NNIs in the environment would cause resistance in pests (20), but not in pollinators and other insects.
- The fact that the 2014-2015 harvests were “above average” would prove that the NNIs were not effective, while he claims, at the same time, that the moratorium would be useless because of the persistence NNIs in soils.
However, these are minor points compared to the other issues.
The journalist discusses the evolution of yields and compares with the use of NNIs:
Generally speaking, this type of comparison is of little value for several reasons.
- Farmers can stop or start a crop and replace another. Thus the yield may tend (depending on the context) to stabilize around the quantity from which the crop is profitable.
- The usefulness of new insecticides is not necessarily to increase yields, they can replace more harmful and expensive insecticides. If there was no deadlock in rapeseed and wheat, NNIs will simply have replaced pre-existing insecticides, in particular because they are simpler and safer to use (no need to apply), potentially less expensive ( it depends on the context) and that they are selective (they kill the pest and little the rest of the entomofauna compared to foliar insecticides).
This graph has an additional problem: it compares the use of NNI for all crops to wheat and rapeseed yields. This does not make sense, at least one should have compared the crop yields to using NNI on that crop. It makes sense that wheat yield is not impacted by the use of NNI on corn …
The author offers another graph and an interpretation which also have serious flaws (27), but which we will discuss a little later, in point 3 of this I.
In addition, we observe an opposite trend with beetroot:
This, even as the price of a ton of beets collapsed… (Meaning the increase probably did not result in more fertile land being allocated to beet.)
S. Foucart refers several times to the study published by the “Center for Food Safety” and written by Sarah Stevens and Peter Jenkins: “Heavy costs. Weighing the Value of Neonicotinoid Insecticides in Agriculture”. (20) m(40)
A report without reach
This report reviewed and synthesized 19 scientific journal articles studying the relationship between neonicotinoid treatments and the yields of 5 American crops. He concludes that “Numerous studies show that neonicotinoid seed treatment does not significantly increase yields in many settings.”
This is not a literature review, since the selection of articles is not systematic. The authors go so far as to include articles which have been interested in the antifungal and herbicidal properties of NNIs… (Pynenburg et al. 2011a et Pynenburg et al. 2011b) This is obviously not relevant, since the NNI are insecticide.
Besides, it is difficult to see the point of this paper. Indeed, there are endless ways to misuse NNIs. Finding a few studies that show they are useless for a given use might not say anything valid. NNIs are not always useful (which is why they are not always used). For example, breeders cultivating cereals in mountainous areas in the middle of meadows generally have fewer aphid problems than beet producers in Hauts de France. To equate the interests of NNIs in these two situations to assess overall profitability doesn’t make sense.
I took this example because it seems pretty obvious to me (and it came up in interviews), but understand that there are endless variables to consider. Nothing is known about the agronomic relevance of the studies in question and the periods studied seem very short, a few years, while the pressure of pests can be very variable.
The authors summarize an insert from Stokstad in Nature (2013) as follows:
“France banned the use of imidacloprid on sunflowers in 1999 and on corn in 2004, but the yield trends for both crops through 2007 show that the productivity was not harmed by the loss of seed treatment as a pest control measure.”Stevens and Jenkins 2014
Here is the graph:
This graphic is silent: besides the criticisms we have already made on this type of comparison, there were coating alternatives for these products. For corn: Thiamethoxam, clothianidin (affected by the 2013 moratorium) and thiacloprid were available.
A misleading presentation
Thus, we see an extremely poor literature review (19 articles), which is agronomically meaningless (it would require a logic, an analysis behind the comparisons) and greatly exaggerates the scope of the data at its disposal. Let us recall the exact terms used by the journalist to present the study:
“In March 2014, an environmentalist NGO based in Washington, the Center for Food Safety (CFS), for its part systematically examined the scientific literature – that is to say the journals submitting the studies they publish to an expert review. preliminary – to get an idea of the real effectiveness of neonicotinoids. CFS had only found four studies showing yield gains from their use as a seed treatment. Against nineteen studies noting an absent or insignificant gain…” (20)
“This finding of a virtual absence of a positive impact from insecticide seed treatments was already underlined in March 2014 by the American Center for Food Safety. The latter had identified nineteen published studies showing no significant increase in yield, against only four suggesting productivity gains.” (Jean-Marc Bonmatin, (40))
In short, it’s disinformation.
Huge conflicts of interests
At the end of the CFS article, there is an interesting mention:
« This report was made possible by generous funding from: Ceres Trust, Harriet Crosby, Bellwether Foundation, & Cornell Douglas Foundation. »
After a little research we find:
- Ceres Trust is a foundation funding various initiatives against pesticides. Its tax return informs us that the foundation had more than $ 2.7 million in turnover and net assets of $ 15.69 million in 2016 Interestingly, we observe that almost all of the contributions ($ 2,002,752 ) come from founder Judith A. Kern ($ 2M). According to the Genetic Literacy Project, Ceres Trust has notably contributed, since 2012, $ 1.8 Mn to the Center for Food Safety, $ 1.5 Mn to Pesticide Action Network, $ 270,000 to Friends of the Earth…
- Harriet Crosby: Friends of the Earth board member, founder and leader of Fox Haven Farm, anti GMO activist …
- Bellwether Foundation, the object of which would be “to improve the quality of life of the inhabitants of Saint Louis by supporting innovative programs that have a positive impact on present and future generations. » According to CauseIQ, the institution would have spent $ 4.6 million in 2019 and would have assets of $ 56.9 million and mainly focus on the promotion of art… According to the Genetic Literacy Project, they do not would not specifically support the fight against GMOs, offering only general support and would have given between 2012 and 2015, $ 545,000 to anti-GMO initiatives, including $ 90,000 to CFS.
- Cornell Douglas Foundation, is a foundation investing in various projects, in particular environmentalists. According to the Genetic Literacy Project, they donated $ 768,000 between 2012 and 2016 to anti-GMO / pesticide initiatives, including 55,000 to CFS.
So we have a militant association, receiving very important funds for its militancy producing a report which has no scientific interest, but which nourishes this militancy and is taken up without distance, like a transmission belt, by S. Foucart… You see that we are at a level of “conflict of interest” which is a few order of magnitude more important than those denounced by the journalist. However, the latter presents the report as a reference on several occasions… Double standards.
The author also refers (we guess, since he rarely quotes precisely) to this study:
Furlan, L., Pozzebon, A., Duso, C. et al. An update of the Worldwide Integrated Assessment (WIA) on systemic insecticides. Part 3: alternatives to systemic insecticides. Approximately Sci Pollut Res 28, 11798–11820 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-017-1052-5
A collective of scientists
This study is part of the work of a group of scientists, formed in 2009 on the common belief that the NNIs are responsible for a collapse of the entomofauna:
“On the basis of existing studies and numerous observations in the field as well as overwhelming circumstantial evidence, they came to the hypothesis that the new generation of pesticides, the persistent, systemic and neurotoxic neonicotinoids and fipronil, introduced in the early 1990s, are likely to be responsible at least in part for these declines.”van Lexmond et al. 2015
If the words seem measured, the name of said collective does not leave too many ambiguities: “Task Force on Systemic Pesticides” (TFSP)… Note that the president of this group, van Lexmond, is one of the founders of the World Widlife Fund (yes, like in WWF). The neutrality of the organization is questionable at best.
Obviously dubious neonicotinoid study
As for the study itself, it never refers to agronomic variables. They only report very partial elements of the studies: did they observe differences in yield or not for a given crop depending on the context (climate, soils, etc.)? The section “Neonicotinoids and crop yields” is just a listing of a few studies. First, they start with a warning:
“Little information is available on the performance of NNIs on yields of [treated] crops. “
Farmers would therefore spend billions of euros on products of which they would not really know the effect… It is quite dubious.
The researchers apply a method of reasoning which is perhaps suitable for toxicology, where it is a question of studying the effect of a molecule on the environment to limit the damage, to agronomy, which has for purpose of evaluating the potential benefit of a treatment.7 There are endless ways to misuse NNIs, listing them all does nothing (except for a manual on how not to use them). It’s a bit as if, for a drug, we were studying a lot of bizarre uses (Ex: does aspirin work against an asthma attack? Does it work on a blister? Fracture?) and, considering that many were not effective, we ended up concluding that they should not be used at all… Finally, we do not know their method of review: how did they select their studies? How do you know if it’s not cherrypicking?
[Apparté: This reminds me a lot of the fallacious reasoning of Didier Raoult, who defended the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19, because the molecule works well against malaria … He suggested that there was a kind of absolute curative power of HCQ demonstrated by its usefulness, in the same way as Furlan et al. (2018) suggest that there would be absolute ineffectiveness of NNIs.]
We also observe dubious reasoning:
“In Italy, implementing IPM would result in at most about 4% of corn crops being treated with insecticides (Furlan et al. 2017). This means that 96% of these fields would not require any insecticide treatment.” (Furlan et al. 2018, p.11800)
It’s like saying the measles vaccine is unnecessary for over 99.99% of the population, because there are only a few hundred cases a year. We are talking about preventive and insurance treatment, which grants collective protection… like a vaccine.
Irrelevant data on neonicotinoids
But let’s look at the studies they produce:
- The study by Hokkanen et al. 2017, which was also presented by the journalist (30), observing that in Finland, there would be a correlation by province between the decrease in rapeseed yields and the use of seed coating. Here, we do not directly observe the effectiveness of NNIs, there is no decent control of the variables (what about changes in regulation? Land use?), The interpretation of trends is questionable at best (The central charts in their analysis (Fig. 4-5) clearly means nothing. For example, the one from which they deduce an increase until 1993 and a decrease after (to be able to attribute it to the NNI), reads like a large plateau (maybe slightly bearish, which seems to go from around 1.4 t / ha to 1.3 t / ha) with a peak between 1989 and 1992… It seems that this is the only basis for doing date some declines to 1993 and therefore trace a vague correlation with the arrival of NNI.), etc. The study is really questionable.
- Budge et al. (2015) would show that rapeseed yields would not be significantly increased by coating and that there would be a correlation between the loss of bee colonies and the use of NNIs. The second point is irrelevant for the present topic (yield). On the first, the study’s authors write unambiguously, “We also provide the first evidence that farmers who use seed coatings reduce the number of foliar insecticide applications and can reap an economic return.” We find what I said above: NNIs have replaced other pesticides. To assess the effectiveness of NNIs, it is necessary to monitor the use of other pesticides.
- According to Furlan and Kreutzweiser (2015), “citing different papers from field trials”, the effects of coating on grains would be negligible, mainly due to the fact that the majority of pest populations are low. The authors here actually cite their previous paper for the TFSP. I’m just going by stressing that it’s pretty normal that NNIs don’t add much in the absence of pests to kill …
- Nogueira Soares et al. (2017) would have shown that “thiamethoxam improves the physiological performance of melon or watermelon seeds treated with NNI.”
- Tamindžić et al. (2016) would have shown that three commercial formulations (Poncho, Gaucher and Cruiser), reduced the germination of treated corn seeds.
- Deguines et al. (2014), having studied the evolution of 54 French crops over 20 years, observed that the benefits of agricultural intensification are inversely proportional to the dependence on pollinators and that the benefits of agricultural intensification would be offset by the reduction in pollination. It’s not about the effectiveness of NNIs, I’ll pass.
Not only do they put studies that have nothing to do there (eg both on germination), but in addition we find what I said above: the process does not make sense. For example, Tamindžić et al. (2016) criticize commercial formulations, namely: isn’t it enough to add coating “boosters” (which is done a lot) to counterbalance germination problems? Or is it not just a problem with the production process? This does not say anything about NNIs in general: that the coating can be badly done is not really a scoop.
Note that most of the paper is in fact dedicated to “alternatives” (the relevance of which we can greatly doubt: it is simple to present a practice as an alternative, but these beautiful, often inspiring ideas may very rarely pass the test of practical reality). This does not say anything about the effectiveness of NNIs. Last important point: this is an environmental science and pollution review, not agronomy. However, its purpose is strictly agronomic…
A misleading presentation
So, in the end, we have a paper which says basically nothing on the question of the effectiveness of NNIs, which does not prevent Jean-Marc Bonmatin from presenting it as follows:
“The first lesson from this synthesis of available knowledge is that in the vast majority of cases, the use of these substances does not increase agricultural yields” (40)
Note the nuance that allows it to say something that is not necessarily wrong (if there was no deadlock, NNIs simply replaced other insecticides and therefore did not increase yields), while making it clear something quite wrong (NNIs would be useless).
Thus, there are two slips here:
- a shift from “NNIs do not always increase returns” to “NNIs rarely increase returns”;
- we pass from “NNIs do not increase returns”, which is not necessarily wrong from a certain perspective [If you put NNIs on a crop that doesn’t need it, you won’t get more yield … Ditto if you replace pesticides that were already managing pests well. At the risk of repeating myself: they are tools and, like all tools, they are useful in some circumstances, useless in others. A fork is a very practical tool, it is still useless for eating a soup.], to “NNIs are useless”, which is absolutely wrong.
One of the heart of S. Foucart’s criticism of uselessness against the NNI is the existence of much more viable alternatives. He thus evokes several times an experiment set up by Furlan in Italy (37) (46). It is therefore interesting to dig deeper. Note that the only trace I have found is in the article we just discussed (Furlan et al. 2018). There was no dedicated publication.
The mutual fund
Furlan and a group of maize producers (representing 47,558ha) had set up a fund, to which farmers paid on average 3.3 € / ha, which compensated in the event of pest damage. The obligations were as follows:
- Contract signed within 7 days after sowing
- Implementation of good cultivation practices
- Implementation of directive 128/2009 / EC
- Implementation of the suggestions of the “Annual Crops Bulletin”
We note that it is very vague. The only clear data seems to be that they do not use coating insecticides. The experiment would have lasted two years (2015-2016). In total the fund took 160,335 € and only 83,863 € were compensated to the farmers.
Three elements are immediately suspicious.
- First, the lack of publication: the study itself has not been published. Strange for a revolutionary find of this magnitude, right?
- Then, the cultivation practices used are not specified1. Haven’t farmers just replaced NNIs with other insecticides?
- Finally, the amount seems ridiculously low. The yield per hectare of grain corn is around 9 tonnes in France, with a price per tonne hovering around € 150. By rounding down to € 1,000 / hectare, we obtain a turnover of over € 47 million for the farmers studied. The pests would therefore have represented damage of around 0.18%… I would remind you that, for beet growers in 2020, the overall losses (NNI + drought) were 23 to 30% (ITB 2020). We are not really on the same orders of magnitude… It is all the more “surprising” that the risks covered by insurance are not limited to damage from pests, but also include risks related to bad weather, wildlife (wild boar, crows) and diseases such as Fusarium wilt.
When you dig deeper, it’s even worse: everything falls apart.
The researcher will do a kind of simulation of the differences between several strategies (mutual fund with and without IPM, compared to the use of NNI) in terms of the price of pesticides, etc. We see that all these estimates are entirely “wet finger”. It begs the question: Didn’t he have hundreds of farmers in his fund that he could have asked about the price of pesticides and IPM? Furlan does not produce any other figures, it is as if compensation was the only variable that was observed.
We must also ask ourselves the credibility of this indicator: how was this compensation managed? We all know that insurance companies often put in place a wealth of restrictions and procedures to limit the payment of risks as much as possible. Were the farmers asking for compensation? Were they granted easily? The vagueness of the conditions could have made compensation impossible: it would suffice to identify a practice contrary to one of the three imposed standards (“good cultivation practices”, directive 128/2009 / EC, suggestions from the “Annual Crops Bulletin”) to deny compensation.
Finally, there is also a serious alert: how was compliance with the specifications monitored? How have a few researchers been able to monitor the agronomic practices of more than 47,000 hectares of crops? All this even as the article betrays the fact that the researchers did not even know the volumes and prices of pesticides used by the “studied” farmers.
Finally, the study covers only 2 years; it does not provide information on the pressure of pests or not and does not take into account the cover against infestations of neighboring crops. Being surrounded by treated plots also protects you, limiting pest pressure.
Anyway, is it really any wonder that the study itself was never published?
- Budge, G. E., D. Garthwaite, A. Crowe, N. D. Boatman, K. S. Delaplane, M. A. Brown, H. H. Thygesen, and S. Pietravalle. “Evidence for Pollinator Cost and Farming Benefits of Neonicotinoid Seed Coatings on Oilseed Rape.” Scientific Reports 5, no. 1 (August 20, 2015): 12574. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep12574.
- Furlan, Lorenzo, Alberto Pozzebon, Carlo Duso, Noa Simon-Delso, Francisco Sánchez-Bayo, Patrice A. Marchand, Filippo Codato, Maarten Bijleveld van Lexmond, and Jean-Marc Bonmatin. “An Update of the Worldwide Integrated Assessment (WIA) on Systemic Insecticides. Part 3: Alternatives to Systemic Insecticides.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research 28, no. 10 (2018): 11798–820. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-017-1052-5.
- Hokkanen, Heikki M. T., Ingeborg Menzler-Hokkanen, and Maaria Keva. “Long-Term Yield Trends of Insect-Pollinated Crops Vary Regionally and Are Linked to Neonicotinoid Use, Landscape Complexity, and Availability of Pollinators.” Arthropod-Plant Interactions 11, no. 3 (June 1, 2017): 449–61. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11829-017-9527-3.
- ITB. “Bilan d’activité 2020.” ITB, Institut Technique de la Betterave, 2020.
- Lexmond, Maarten Bijleveld van, Jean-Marc Bonmatin, Dave Goulson, and Dominique A. Noome. “Worldwide Integrated Assessment on Systemic Pesticides.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research 22, no. 1 (January 1, 2015): 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-014-3220-1.
- Pynenburg, Gerard M., Peter H. Sikkema, and Chris L. Gillard. “Agronomic and Economic Assessment of Intensive Pest Management of Dry Bean (Phaseolus Vulgaris).” Crop Protection 30, no. 3 (March 1, 2011): 340–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cropro.2010.12.006.
- Pynenburg, Gerard, Peter Sikkema, Darren Robinson, and Chris Gillard. “The Interaction of Annual Weed and White Mold Management Systems for Dry Bean Production in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Plant Science 91, no. 3 (May 1, 2011): 587–98. https://doi.org/10.4141/cjps10127.
- Soares, Vanessa Nogueira, AndrÃ©ia da Silva Almeida, Cristiane Deuner, Adilson Jauer, and Lilian Madruga de Tunes. “Neonicotinoid Insecticide Treatment Improves Physiological Performance of Melon and Watermelon Seeds.” African Journal of Agricultural Research 12, no. 20 (May 18, 2017): 1678–83. https://doi.org/10.5897/AJAR2016.11387.
- Stevens, Sarah, and Peter Jenkins. “Heavy Costs: Weighing the Value of Neonicotinoid Insecticides in Agriculture.” Center for Food Safety, 2014. https://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/reports/2999/heavy-costs-weighing-the-value-of-neonicotinoid-insecticides-in-agriculture.
- Stokstad, E., 2013. How Big a Role Should Neonicotinoids Play in Food Security? Science 340, 675–675. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.340.6133.675
- Tamindzic, Gordana, Zorica Nikolic, Dragana Milošević, and Maja Ignjatov. “Viability and Vigour of Different Maize (Zea Mays L.) Inbred Lines Treated with Neonicotinoids.” Ratarstvo i Povrtarstvo 53 (January 1, 2016): 90–95. https://doi.org/10.5937/ratpov53-10393.