Green hysteria costs lives

Jasson Urbach | 12 Nov 2014
Africa Fighting Malaria
Apparently we no longer live in a world that values technological advancement. Canadian Environmental Commissioner, Gord Miller, recently stated, "[Neonicotinoids are] the biggest threat to the structure and integrity of the ecosystem that I have encountered in my life... Bigger than DDT". Neonicotinoids are a remarkable and desperately needed kind of insecticide. Miller bases his mistrust of neonicotinoids on an unfounded fear that they are responsible for the collapse of some bee colonies.

In 1948 Paul Muller, the scientist who synthesised DDT, was awarded the Nobel Prize. DDT saved countless millions of lives from malaria, lice-borne typhus, yellow fever and other diseases. In addition to its use in public health programmes, DDT was also used in agriculture to protect crops from pests and increase food production, thereby ensuring millions of people had more to eat at a lower cost.

The world desperately needs another insecticide like DDT, but now Muller's discovery is used only to instil fear and as an unjustified weapon in the environmentalists' spectrum of nastiness.

Rachel Carson's 1962 Silent Spring began the long crusade against DDT, claiming it devastated the American Robin population. People unthinkingly accepted her claim, ignoring the fact that during the many years of heavy DDT use, Robin populations actually increased in the United States. Millions believed, and continue to believe, Carson's claim that DDT would harm human health, despite the fact that life expectancy and human populations rose during years of DDT use and continue to rise.

In 1996 South Africa learnt the hard way that Carson's findings were not founded on fact. Heeding the environmentalists' pressure to halt the use of DDT, as part of the country's national malaria control programme, the South African government decided to switch to an alternative insecticide. What ensued was one of the worst malaria epidemics in the country's history. A highly efficient malaria transmitting mosquito, believed to have been eradicated in the 1970s, quickly reappeared. Malaria cases rose from about 6,000 in 1995 to more than 60,000 in 2000, with deaths rising at a similar pace.

In early 2000, South Africa reintroduced DDT to control malaria, and in 2001 introduced new artemisinin-based combination therapies to treat malaria patients. The combination of effective insecticides and drugs ensured that malaria cases fell by almost 80% by the end of 2001 to about 26,000 cases. Since then, South Africa has registered progressive decreases in the number of malaria cases: 9,866 in 2011 and 6,785 in 2012. DDT remains the insecticide of choice.

None of this seems to matter, however. Extreme environmentalists continue to push for a halt in the use of DDT despite its remarkable track record in saving lives and helping communities to grow and prosper. Now it appears that history is going to repeat itself over neonics.

Bee colonies do face dangers, but mostly from parasites such as the deadly varroa mite, bacteria and viruses. In addition, the relatively new practice of transporting hives across country to pollinate crops also takes its toll because it denies bees time to rest and rejuvenate. Despite the claims being made by environmental alarmists, honeybee colonies in the United States have been stable since 2006. In the UK, losses of bee colonies over winter have been on a downward trend for years, according to the British Beekeepers Association. The European Commission's recent Epilobee study found that last year most bee populations experienced losses of an acceptable 15 percent or less, and, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization worldwide, the number of beehives is at an all-time high, having increased by over 13 percent since 2000.

Just as environmentalists adopted Carson's strategy of blaming a single insecticide for non-existent problems, critics of neonics are now calling for them to be banned. If one is concerned about the environment, though, neonics should represent a long-awaited and remarkable advance. These new insecticides can be applied in a very specific and targeted way, minimising harm to non-target pests and reduce the overall amount of pesticides required to ensure a crop flourishes. The amount of chemical used is low and targeted so the risk of exposure by farm labourers is greatly reduced.

Bringing a new insecticide to market costs hundreds of millions of dollars, largely thanks to more onerous regulations. The prospect of an effective replacement for neonics coming along any time soon is thus faint. If neonics are phased out completely based in an unfounded fear that they are causing bee colony collapse, most farmers would have to resort to older chemicals that would likely pose a greater threat to non-target insects and other wildlife. Moreover, farm workers would be exposed to higher risk and crop yields would diminish, and food prices would soar.

Conveniently, Green groups don't have to worry about such problems. They did not object when DDT was banned in the US and the Environmental Protection Agency recommended its replacement with methyl parathion, a far more toxic chemical. There is no recorded case of any death caused by occupational exposure to DDT, but there are of farm workers being harmed and several dying from handling methyl parathion. In time the EPA was forced to withdraw it. Although DDT remained as an available substance for use in public health, the restrictions on its production and use effectively phased it out of use in many countries, weakening the battle against malaria.

In the face of increasingly shrill calls for the banning of neonics, regulators in Europe and the United States must take a long, sober look at the evidence of harm, or lack thereof, and rule in favour of sound science. The alternative is to give into activist pressure and repeat the sorry history of anti-DDT campaigns, something people in developing countries are still paying for.