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

Serena and Venus Williams have been known to follow a vegan diet. Edwin Martinez / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Whitney E. Akers

  • "The Game Changers" is a new documentary on Netflix that posits a vegan diet can improve athletic performance in professional athletes.

  • Limited studies available show that the type of diet — plant-based or omnivorous — doesn't give you an athletic advantage.

  • We talked to experts about what diet is the best for athletic performance.

Packed with record-setting athletes displaying cut physiques and explosive power, "The Game Changers," a new documentary on Netflix, has a clear message: Vegan is best.

Read More Show Less
An illegally trafficked tiger skull and pelt. Ryan Moehring / USFWS

By John R. Platt

When it comes to solving problems related to wildlife trade, there are an awful lot of "sticky widgets."

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Pexels

By Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE

Inflammation can be both good and bad.

On one hand, it helps your body defend itself from infection and injury. On the other hand, chronic inflammation can lead to weight gain and disease.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Dan Nosowitz

It's no secret that the past few years have been disastrous for the American farming industry.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD

Medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil and coconut oil are fats that have risen in popularity alongside the ketogenic, or keto, diet.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Pexels

By Bijal Trivedi

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report on Nov. 13 that describes a list of microorganisms that have become resistant to antibiotics and pose a serious threat to public health. Each year these so-called superbugs cause more than 2.8 million infections in the U.S. and kill more than 35,000 people.

Read More Show Less
Rool Paap / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE

Inflammation can be good or bad depending on the situation.

Read More Show Less

By Joe Vukovich

Under the guise of responding to consumer complaints that today's energy- and water-efficient dishwashers take too long, the Department of Energy has proposed creating a new class of dishwashers that wouldn't be subject to any water or energy efficiency standards at all. The move would not only undermine three decades of progress for consumers and the environment, it is based on serious distortions of fact regarding today's dishwashers.

Read More Show Less