Quantcast

Global Ban on Bee-Killing Neonics Needed Now

Insights + Opinion

No matter how you feel about Ontario’s proposal to restrict use of neonicotinoid insecticides on corn and soybean crops, we can all agree: bees matter. But as important as bees are, there’s more at stake. Neonics are poisoning our soil and water. This problematic class of pesticides needs to be phased out globally to protect Earth’s ecosystems. By implementing restrictions now (the first in North America), Ontario will have a head start in the transition to safer alternatives.

The industry’s objection to restrictions on neonics is eerily similar to big-budget advertising campaigns to create a smokescreen thick enough to delay regulatory responses to the obvious harm caused by cigarettes.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Not surprisingly, Ontario’s proposal has drawn the ire of the pesticide industry.

Neonics have only been around for a couple of decades, but annual global sales now top $2.6 billion. They were initially embraced because they are less directly toxic to humans than older pesticides and are effective at low levels, reducing the volume used. They can be applied to seeds and are absorbed into the plant, which then becomes toxic to insect pests, reducing the need to spray.

We now know these characteristics are the problem. These chemicals are nerve poisons that are toxic even at very low doses and persist in plants and the environment. They affect the information-processing abilities of invertebrates, including some of our most important pollinators.

Bees have borne the brunt of our unfortunate, uncontrolled experiment with neonics. Beekeepers report unusually high bee death rates in recent years, particularly in corn-growing areas of Ontario and Quebec. Virtually all corn and about 60 percent of soybean seeds planted in Ontario are treated with neonics. A federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency investigation concluded that planting neonic-treated seeds contributed to the bee die-offs.

Europe reached a similar conclusion and placed a moratorium on the use of neonics on bee-attractive crops, which took effect last year.

Critics emphasize that other factors—including climate change, habitat loss and disease—affect pollinator health. But these factors are not entirely independent; for example, chronic exposure to neonics may increase vulnerability to disease. A comprehensive pollinator health action plan should address all these factors, and scaling back the use of neonics is a good place to start.

Apart from the immediate and lethal effects on bees, neonics represent a more subtle threat to a wide range of species. The 2014 Worldwide Integrated Assessment of the Impacts of Systemic Pesticides, the most comprehensive review of the scientific literature on neonics, pointed to effects on smell and memory, reproduction, feeding behaviour, flight and ability to fight disease. Jean‐Marc Bonmatin, one of the lead authors, summarized the conclusions:

“The evidence is very clear. We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates or DDT. Far from protecting food production the use of neonics is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it, imperilling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem.”

Is there some uncertainty involved in calculating these risks? Absolutely. Uncertainty is at the heart of scientific inquiry. The precautionary principle requires that where there is threat of serious or irreversible harm to human health or the environment, the absence of complete scientific certainty or consensus must not be used as an excuse to delay action. In the case of neonics, the weight of evidence clearly supports precautionary action to reduce — or even eliminate — them. 

Ontario’s proposal to restrict the use of neonic-treated corn and soybean seed, starting next year, is far from radical. The idea is to move away from routinely planting neonic-treated seeds and use neonics only in situations where crops are highly vulnerable to targeted pests. The government expects this will reduce the uses of neonic-treated corn and soybean seed by 80 percent by 2017.

It’s no surprise that the pesticide industry and its associates oppose even this modest proposal and are running expensive PR campaigns to obscure the evidence of harm. The industry’s objection to restrictions on neonics is eerily similar to big-budget advertising campaigns to create a smokescreen thick enough to delay regulatory responses to the obvious harm caused by cigarettes.

Let’s hope today’s decision-makers have a better grasp of the precautionary principle and a stronger commitment to protecting the public good, because bees really do matter.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Crop System Puts Monarch Butterflies at Brink of Extinction

‘How to Change the World’ Traces the Birth of Greenpeace

405 Wild Bison Slaughtered in Yellowstone National Park So Far This Season

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A roller coaster on the Jersey Shore flooded after Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Hurricane_Sandy_New_Jersey_Pier.jpg: Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen / U.S. Air Force / New Jersey National Guard / CC BY 2.0

New Jersey will be the first state in the U.S. to require builders to take the climate crisis into consideration before seeking permission for a project.

Read More
Workers selectively harvest slightly under-ripe Syrah grapes to make a Blanc de Noir wine for the Israeli winery Zaza on Aug. 6, 2019 in central Israel. Israeli vintners are harvesting their grapes earlier than they did a decade ago due to shorter winters and more intense summers. David Silverman / Getty Images

The climate crisis may be coming for your favorite wines.

Read More
Sponsored
An aerial view of a neighborhood destroyed by the Camp Fire on Nov. 15, 2018 in Paradise, Calif. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Respecting scientists has never been a priority for the Trump Administration. Now, a new investigation from The Guardian revealed that Department of the Interior political appointees sought to play up carbon emissions from California's wildfires while hiding emissions from fossil fuels as a way to encourage more logging in the national forests controlled by the Interior department.

Read More
Slowing deforestation, planting more trees, and cutting emissions of non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases like methane could cut another 0.5 degrees C or more off global warming by 2100. South_agency / E+ / Getty Images

By Dana Nuccitelli

Killer hurricanes, devastating wildfires, melting glaciers, and sunny-day flooding in more and more coastal areas around the world have birthed a fatalistic view cleverly dubbed by Mary Annaïse Heglar of the Natural Resources Defense Council as "de-nihilism." One manifestation: An increasing number of people appear to have grown doubtful about the possibility of staving-off climate disaster. However, a new interactive tool from a climate think tank and MIT Sloan shows that humanity could still meet the goals of the Paris agreement and limit global warming.

Read More
A baby burrowing owl perched outside its burrow on Marco Island, Florida. LagunaticPhoto / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Burrowing owls, which make their homes in small holes in the ground, are having a rough time in Florida. That's why Marco Island on the Gulf Coast passed a resolution to pay residents $250 to start an owl burrow in their front yard, as the Marco Eagle reported.

Read More