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Fiction as environmental lobby

Coffin Road by Peter May

Rebecca Nesbit 22 April 2017

Bee in your bonnet: misplaced fear in fiction

Legitimate concerns can be raised about industry involvement in academic science and in agrochemical regulation, but these legitimate concerns do not include murder

Peter May’s latest novel Coffin Road opens with a man washed up on a beach having lost his memory. This may not be an original premise, but it does make for an intriguing start. We follow the character’s journey as he discovers snippets of information about his life, some of which he’s not too happy with.

The backdrop is the Outer Hebrides, and many scenes evoke a stunning landscape and closed community.

Whilst much of the narration is a first-person account from our amnesiac, some chapters are third-person accounts from other characters. This is dissatisfying for some readers, but I was still finding the book an enjoyable read.

However, things take a turn for the worse halfway through when we discover that the protagonist is a scientist working on honeybees. He is working on a (badly-designed) experiment, which we’re told is of fundamental importance to banning neonicotinoid pesticides.

The book then goes on to promote the popular narrative from the environmental lobby: anyone who cares for society and the environment wants neonicotinoids banned, and everyone else is siding with big corporations.

Honeybees make great poster children for this campaign, hence they are the focus of Coffin Road , but we mustn’t forget they are a domestic species. Their numbers are determined largely by the behaviour and dedication of beekeepers.

Casual readers of the book will be forgiven for thinking that honeybees are of conservation concern and declining rapidly due to pesticides. In reality, they are of concern for agriculture not conservation, and estimates suggest there are over 80 million beehives worldwide. It is a common mistake to equate winter losses, which we have been seeing recently, with an overall population trend.

Neonicotinoids are almost certainly a factor in the decline of wild bees, which is indeed a huge conservation concern. We need to avoid the trap of thinking a pesticide ban will solve our problems though: we also have habitat fragmentation and loss, climate change and invasive species to blame.

I was also concerned by the extreme portrayal of agrochemical businesses. There is certainly convincing evidence that neonicotinoids have sub-lethal effects on honeybees, as Coffin Road explains. However, scientists who have performed these experiments have gone on to publish them in respected journals and not found their lives under threat from evil corporations.

Legitimate concerns can be raised about industry involvement in academic science and in agrochemical regulation, but these legitimate concerns do not include murder. By portraying the agrochemical businesses as going to extreme lengths to supress evidence, don’t we risk polarising the debate whilst failing to tackle the much more nuanced corporate issues we really face?

The scientific reality is also far more complex than the one May portrays, and the neonicotinoid debate is surrounded by uncertainty. For example, if we ban neonicotinoids, will farmers simply resort to other pesticides? Alongside the complex and incomplete evidence base, decision makers have to contend with both corporate and environmental lobbies and their differing agendas. This book seems intent on fuelling the powerful environmental lobby by using ‘evidence’ which is, unsurprisingly in a novel, a work of fiction.

Conspiracy theories inevitably make a more exciting thriller than a realistic portrayal of a complex debate. However, by making up science and scenarios around a named class of controversial pesticides, May gives the mistaken impression that he is informing readers about the issues. Is this lobbying by stealth?

If you’re looking for an easy-reading thriller with evocative images of a remote landscape, then Coffin Road is for you. If you’re looking to learn about the science of bee declines, however, you might be interested in the summary and links on my blog.