In June of 2014, the White House Pollinator Health Task Force was charged with the task of improving pollinator health through new agency regulations and partnerships. Honeybee advocates and activists have been urging for a swift delivery as we lose two out of every five American honeybee colonies. In fact, according to according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), annual bee losses were 42 percent—the worst yet.
Today, after about a year, with the assistance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Task Force finally released its strategy.
Of course, this is another positive baby step. But many, including The Center for Food Safety (CFS), contend that the strategy is basically too weak. Overall, the plan for honey bees, monarch butterflies and other pollinators seems quite lofty, with far-reaching goals and not a lot of carry-through action steps.
Some of their ambitious goals include (1) reducing honeybee colony loss during winter to no more than 15 percent within 10 years, (2) increasing the monarch butterfly population to 225 million butterflies in the overwintering grounds in Mexico by 2020 and (3) restoring or enhancing seven million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years.
Okay, great. But how, exactly?
“This plan is largely a plan for communications, outreach, and research, but it has few concrete actions aimed at protecting pollinators from the unique risks of systemic, highly persistent insecticides,” says Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of Center for Food Safety. “The plan fails to recognize or in any way follow the concrete steps taken in the European Union or elsewhere to sharply reduce those risks. It is a slow, reactive plan instead of the proactive plan the pollinator crisis now demands.”
What about Banning Neonics? Now!
While the White House mentions the substantial knowledge gaps regarding chronic effects of systemic insecticides on pollinators, they didn’t implement further restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids or the other systemic insecticides currently on the market.
Yes, the EPA recently ordered a moratorium against neonics, but it only applies to new products. Current ones are exempt. It’s like these products made it into the-kill-the-bees-and-beings-club.
“Without strong, immediate action on neonicotinoids and other systemic pesticides, it’s unlikely that pollinator populations will be able to rebound to healthy, resilient levels,” says Larissa Walker, Pollinator Campaign Director at CFS.
Since the release of my film, Vanishing of the Bees, there is now extensive legitimate research illustrating how dangerous these neonics are across the board to bees, rivers, soil and humans. Bayer has created some insidious stuff despite the extensive new science demonstrating clear and chronic effects on bumblebees, other native bees and honey bees, which should compel remedial action, not just years of more research.
“The plan focuses heavily on improving pollinator habitat, but is blind to the fact that new habitat will simply become contaminated by insecticides still heavily in use, ultimately harming pollinators,” adds Walker. “We can’t just plant more wild flowers near crop land and expect insecticides to stop being a problem.”
With respect to economic impacts, the plan admits the (EPA) lacks adequate cost/benefit information as to how the loss of pollinators should be weighed against the often non-existent economic benefits of neonicotinoid-coated seeds.
“Without a clear economic understanding of the costs of the products, both to beekeepers and to the environment and economy more broadly, EPA cannot allow continued registration of these devastating insecticides,” said Peter Jenkins, attorney with Center for Food Safety. “The Task Force evades the question by calling for more research, as it does in many areas. Pollinators cannot wait for more research.”
The Plan: Pros and Cons
The White House plan ignores several practical solutions repeatedly projected by a wide variety of stakeholders, which include:
- Closing the conditional registration loophole allowing pesticides to enter the market with limited review.
- Fully calculating the externalized economic and environmental costs associated with pesticide use.
- Regulating the planting of neonicotinoid coated seeds as a pesticide application, which comprises the vast majority of neonicotinoid use in the U.S.
- Instituting a mandatory national pesticide use reporting system.
- Implementing concrete measures to ensure conservation lands and federally designated pollinator habitat are not contaminated with pesticides.
There are a few positive aspects to the plan, however. CFS was pleased to see the White House put forth the following steps that were called for over the years:
- Further expedition of the registration reviews of several neonicotinoids.
- Expansion of pesticide risk assessments to include additional species and chronic toxicity impacts.
- Accession of wild bee population declines, which is currently not monitored.
- Efficacy analyses of seed coatings for additional crops, not just soybeans.
- Prohibition of foliar sprays of acutely toxic pesticides while managed honey bees are on the premises.
The plan also addresses threats to monarch butterflies, specifically the destructive effects of glyphosate-based weedkillers on milkweed plants essential to their survival. While efforts to restore milkweed habitat are important, without addressing the agricultural practices responsible for the eradication of milkweed, monarch populations will not rebound to resilient, healthy levels. Listing monarch butterflies as threatened under the Endangered Species Act is essential to their survival because it would provide stronger protection for the butterflies and their habitat, and it would create a coordinated federal recovery plan.
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