Pollinator issues and the dangerous systemic pesticides that kill bees, butterflies, and bats were in the D.C. spotlight the week of March 24. A coalition of nongovernmental organizations, including the Center for Food Safety, met with two renowned bee experts, key agency leaders, and members of Congress to discuss the impacts of neonicotinoids. According to the recent report Heavy Costs: Weighing The Value Of Neonicotinoid Insecticides In Agriculture, issued by the Center for Food Safety, systemic pesticides are killing bees, offer little benefit to farmers, and don’t even increase crop yields. They do, however, cause widespread environmental and economic damage that threatens even more than our honeybee population. Consider the devastating fact that the national bee population has declined by 30 percent from 2007 to 2014, despite our absolute dependence on them. They are responsible for pollinating one in every three bites of the food we (hopefully) eat. Systemic pesticides travel from the soil and are absorbed into vegetation, moving through the xylem and extending the leaves and flowers, where they poison pollen and nectar. However, as a seed treatment, only a small fraction of the active ingredient is actually taken up in the crop. The remaining active ingredient presumably disburses in dust clouds during planting, or it sticks around in the soil and eventually runs off into groundwater and surface waters. So, not only do they slowly kill bees and contaminate plants, they pollute our water and our soil. Typically, in most soil conditions, neonics will take anywhere from one to three years to break down. But in certain rare soil conditions, they may take up to 19 years (or “6,932 days,” as the Environmental Protection Agency noted in one of their memos on clothianidin). In fact, metabolites are often more dangerous than their parent compound. We are literally killing our planet. The European Union recently began a two-year ban on neonicotinoids to protect honeybees and other pollinators. Why are these toxic chemicals still on the market in the United States? The United States alone spends $10 billion a year on pesticides. And, in 2011, the U.S. chemicals industry made $763 billion in sales. Since their introduction in the mid-90s, systemic pesticides have become the most popularly used chemical in the world. “It’s frightening when you realize just how much these chemicals are being used, even if they’re not needed,” says Larissa Walker, policy and campaign coordinator for the Center for Food Safety.
About 99 percent of all of the corn seed in the U.S. ( roughly 97.4 million acres) is treated with neonicotinoids, and about 90 percent of canola and half of all soybeans are as well. These staple crops, predictably, are mostly genetically modified, and are modified to withstand torrential amounts of pesticides. “When you see these numbers, it’s no surprise that neonicotinoids are the most widely used insecticides in the world,” says Walker. “Seeds treated with neonics dominate the market, especially corn, and since it is extremely difficult for farmers to find untreated seeds, they’ve quickly become ubiquitous.” Vanishing of the Bees presented some of the first claims that these systemics are responsible for colony collapse disorder, the phenomenon that has decimated honeybee colonies in the United States since 2006. At that time, it was a narrowly held viewpoint. But now, eight years later, studies conducted at Purdue, the University of Sussex, Harvard, and Yale implicate these compounds. Their known impacts on bees range from interference with foraging and navigation (which reduces their ability to pollinate crops) to death.