Sugar is bad for us. We know this, but as a nation we consume a lot, whether in sweetened drinks, cakes, or other food. That’s why sugar farming is a big industry in the UK.
In tropical and subtropical climates they grow sugar cane, but here homegrown sugar comes from beet. But beet suffers from yellow virus, a disease spread by aphids. Yellow virus can destroy a crop.
If you want to kill aphids, neonicotinoid pesticides are very effective. They act on insects’ nervous systems. Unfortunately, they also take out honey bees, bumble bees, and solitary bees as collateral. Even where the insecticide picked up in pollen or nectar doesn’t kill these bees, it can damage their ability to forage and reproduce. Wild flowers nearby can build up residues of toxins too. It’s a dangerous time to be a bee.
Yet the UK government, with its post-Brexit autonomy and lack of wisdom, has decided to allow the emergency use of neonicotinoids on sugar beet, despite independent scientific advice warning against this. In contrast, the EU bans their use. In the short term, UK sugar beet farmers will gain, the spread of the virus will be curbed.
But the cost will be very high for bees. This is iatrogenic medicine, a treatment that leaves the patient in a worse condition because of side effects. This year’s crop will probably be OK, but the future of food farming in the UK will be jeopardised.
Many fruit and vegetable plants are dependent on pollinator insects. Bee populations are already in serious decline due to climate change, disease, and loss of habitat, but also because too many farmers have used toxic chemicals unwisely. The government’s short-termism here is disappointing.
Utilitarian philosophers do a kind of cost/benefit analysis to decide what the moral course of action is in any situation. Their aim is to maximise happiness for the greatest number of people.
Here, if we ignore the health effects of sugar consumption, negative consequences of pesticide use may seem negligible when set against the benefits of higher yields this year and the next from beet farming. A decent crop will keep the influential sugar farmers, their employees, and their customers happy. Sucrose lovers will be happy too as prices won’t rise sharply and they’ll get their fix.
Assuming the interests of the virus-spreading aphids and of the bees don’t count for much, and the consequent health-damaging effects on the population of cheap sugar production aren’t too great, then perhaps the government could argue on utilitarian grounds that this is the best way to maximise beneficial outcomes. But any analysis which takes a slightly longer view will show neonicotinoid use to be reckless short-termism. It will kill beneficial insects and so will damage food farming.
If we take a much longer-term view, a dramatic and perhaps irreversible drop in pollinator numbers would be a disaster not just for people living now, but for those who have yet to be born. There could be trillions of these before humans go extinct.
But if we include future generations’ interests in our assessment of what we should do now, how far should we go? If everyone counts for one, then the interests of the trillions of future people will far outweigh the interests of the eight billion or so alive today. Surely we don’t have to give much weight to all of their interests, do we? If we did, we’d end up sacrificing just about everything that benefits us now for the sake of huge numbers of later inhabitants of the earth.
Recently, some Oxford-based longtermist philosophers, including Nick Bostrom, Toby Ord and Will MacAskill, revealed they are prepared to bite that bullet: they’ve argued in favour of giving a surprisingly large weighting to the interests of all those not yet existent people. I’m sceptical about aspects of their longtermism, particularly their confidence in the predictions they make about what is likely to happen in the distant future.
But we don’t need to join the longtermist philosophers with their concerns about the trillions of unborn people’s interests or make accurate predictions about future centuries to recognise that people living today will be seriously damaged by a massive reduction in numbers of pollinator insects. A less exotic short- to mediumtermism is sufficient to see how foolish it is to license neonicotinoid use.
We don’t know for sure what the distant future will be like, but a bee-light medium-term future is looming, and that is very disturbing. And for what? Sugar.