Thursday, October 9, 2014

Margaret Wente: “Duplicitous” or “ignorant”?

“Duplicitous”:  marked by deliberate deceptiveness in behavior or speech”.  This is a word Ms. Wente used to describe a BC doctor last week - after misrepresenting her views.  “Ignorant”:  “lacking knowledge or awareness”, also “discourteous and rude”. 

Neonictinoids have been in the news lately.  And given that The Globe and Mail is a ‘newspaper’, one expects its columnists to be aware of what is reported.  They are, as they say, entitled to their opinions, but not their own facts. 

A while back Wente defended neonictinoids (increasingly blamed for bee deaths) by citing anecdotes from her hobbyist beekeeper husband. Why bother contacting scientists or relevant professional bodies?  Unsurprisingly her latest effort also avoids recent relevant science, and quotes another retired hobbyist who she perhaps encountered at a country fair honey competition. Walter Zimmerman’s expert publications consist of a cranky letter to the Hamilton Spectator. 

The only other evidence Wente presents is a link to a Canadian Senate committee (we know how our government values science).  But even there, what she cherry picks is a questionable representation of Guzman’s (now largely out of date) remarks.  Guzman cites earlier research from his field (he’s a specialist in Varroa mites, not neonictinoids), and even so, contrary to what Wente writes, agrees that bee die off “in spring… seems to be neonicotinoid pesticides”.

Mites are pretty clearly not the issue.  One publication notes that while pesticide makers like Bayer and Syngenta  prefer to blame them for the bulk of bee deaths, the data doesn’t support this.  Varroa didn’t appear to be a factor in the majority of cases of large-scale die-offs and the first spike in bee deaths in Canada coincides with the arrival of widespread use of neonics in 2007, whereas Varroa arrived in the 1990s.

Given hubby’s hobby, it seems unlikely that Wente would be unaware of this and other new, more relevant research published and much publicized, since Guzman’s comments.  But amazingly, Wente fails to mention Dr. Nigel Raine, Research Chair at Guelph, an eminent  scientist who actually studies neonictinoids and bees – even though his precise findings were widely reported:

Bumblebees exposed to neonicotinoid pesticides become impaired and unable to support their colonies, causing those colonies to slowly die, according to the results of a study out of the University of Guelph.  The study, which was published Tuesday in the British Ecological Society’s journal Functional Ecology, tracked the foraging habits of 40 bumblebee colonies over four weeks. Researchers fitted the insects with tiny microchips to track their movements via radio and compared the habits of neonicotinoid-treated bees with untreated bees. The study found insects exposed to neonicotinoids fared significantly worse than their untreated counterparts…The bees treated with neonicotinoids were much less able to collect pollen… “They actually became worse at collecting pollen, which is exactly the opposite of what you would expect.”

And many other more recent reports, including one by Eric Atkins in the Globe itself, describe the mounting scientific evidence about neonics as “unequivocal”:

A group of 29 scientists from four continents found unequivocal evidence from hundreds of published studies to claim that “neonics” – the most widely used pesticides in the world – are having a dramatic impact on the ecosystems that support food production and wildlife…

…The taskforce, set up four years ago, analysed 800 peer-reviewed scientific reports on neonicotinoids and fibronil, another type of systemic pesticide, a group of pesticides that are absorbed by all parts of a plant, including roots, leaves, flowers, fruit and even nectar and pollen”.

So the question is this:  Is Ms. Wente spectacularly unaware of widely reported research on this issue (in which case - is she lazy, irresponsible or ignorant?), or is she being “duplicitous” - deliberately withholding from readers the relevant reports, and citing as ‘experts’ her hubby and others on the weekend hobby-farm fair honey circuit?  While there will certainly be no response, it should be a question of credibility for the Globe and Mail. 


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