By Andrea Germanos
Despite lower applied amounts of pesticides in U.S. agriculture, their toxicity to non-target species including honeybees more than doubled in a decade, according to a new study.
The findings by a team of researchers from Germany's University Koblenz-Landau were published Friday in the journal Science.
"We have taken a large body of pesticide use data from the U.S. and have expressed changes of amounts applied in agriculture over time as changes in total applied pesticide toxicity," explained lead author Ralf Schulz, professor for environmental sciences in Landau, in a statement.
"This provides a new view on the potential consequences that pesticide use in agriculture has on biodiversity and ecosystems," he said.
The researchers looked at changes in the use of 381 pesticides from 1992 to 2016 and analyzed toxicity impacts on eight non-target species groups, drawing data from the U.S. Geological Survey and Environmental Protection Agency. They used the EPA's threshold values to determine "total applied pesticide toxicity."
Lower amounts of pesticides have been applied, which brought decreased impacts on vertebrates, the scientists noted. But the same can't be said for non-target species including aquatic invertebrates like crustaceans and pollinators like bees, who faced a doubling in toxicity between 2005 and 2015 — a shift the authors put on increases in the use of pesticides called pyrethroids and neonicotinoids.
Also troubling is that an increase in herbicide toxicity has been on the rise as well, the scientists said, with the biggest impact seen on terrestrial plants. The study pointed to increased toxicity in the widely cultivated genetically modified crops in the U.S. of corn and soybean.
Schulz said the findings "challenge the claims of decreasing environmental impact of chemical pesticides in both conventional and GM crops and call for action to reduce the pesticide toxicity applied in agriculture worldwide."
The study was released amid continued concerns, both nationally and international, about wide-ranging adverse ecological impacts of neonicotinoids, or neonics, as they're sometimes called, especially amid a global decline in insect numbers that threatens humanity's future.
As Philip Donkersley, a senior research associate in entomology at Lancaster University, wrote this month at The Conversation:
Since their introduction in the late 1980s, robust scientific evidence has emerged to suggest these chemicals impair learning and memory, foraging behavior, and pollination in bees. The E.U. banned neonicotinoids in 2019, and while the U.K. government pledged to follow suit, it granted a special exemption for sugar beet farmers to use the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam in January 2021. Thankfully, it wasn't used.
Because honeybees don't spend much time on the ground, environmental risk assessments for neonicotinoids often neglect to consider how exposure to these chemicals in the soil affects all pollinators. But in a landmark study published in Nature, researchers have shown how neonicotinoids affect bees not just by accumulating in the plants pollinators visit, but in the ground where most wild bees build their nests.
Evidence suggests neonics' impacts go well beyond bees, including possibly to mammals like deer who inadvertently consume them.
As Civil Eats reported last month, the concerns are prompting continued demands for U.S. regulators to take action to curb or ban use of neonics.
Daniel Raichel, a staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the outlet: "It's a bee issue for sure, but really, it's an ecosystem issue. It's an everything issue."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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By Daniel Raichel
Industry would have us believe that pesticides help sustain food production — a necessary chemical trade-off for keeping harmful bugs at bay and ensuring we have enough to eat. But the data often tell a different story—particularly in the case of neonicotinoid pesticides, also known as neonics.
Despite being the most widely used family of pesticides in the United States, research has shown that the largest uses of these neurotoxic chemicals do little to nothing to help crop yields or farmers' bottom lines.
If we look closer, it's easy to see why: The vast majority of neonics are applied as coatings on seeds for crops like corn, soybean, and wheat — where they are most often used indiscriminately, rather than in response to specific pest problems. For many conventional seed varieties, farmers have no choice but to buy neonics-treated seeds, thanks to the near monopolies enjoyed by agrochemical giants, which manufacture both the seeds and the pesticides.
The result? Tens to hundreds of millions of acres are needlessly sown with bee-toxic seeds. And while these wasteful practices may spell good news for the profit margins of chemical manufacturers — to the tune of more than $3 billion per year — they are catastrophic news for the surrounding ecosystems.
That's because neonics are pervasive ecosystem contaminants. When coated on seeds, they're absorbed "systemically" as plants grow — up through the roots and into the nectar, pollen, and fruit itself — which then get eaten by other wildlife. What doesn't make it into the plant (usually more than 95 percent of the toxic seed coating) leaches out into the soil, where it can travel long distances, carried by rain and agricultural runoff into new soil, plants, and water supplies. Once in the ground, neonics are long-lived — building up in the soil over time and continuing to harm or kill bugs and other wildlife for years after application.
Unsurprisingly, our agricultural system is now 48 times more harmful to insect life than it was just two decades ago, with neonics accounting for more than 90 percent of that increase. That's why it's also no surprise that neonics have been recognized as a primary cause of the massive losses of U.S. honey bee colonies every year — the unfortunate new normal. Neonics are also linked to mass die-offs of native bees, birds, fish, and harm to other important insects and earthworms, which keep our soil healthy and nutrient-dense.
This contamination poses a clear ecological crisis but it's also a crisis for how we eat.
In a recent study out of Rutgers University, researchers looked at seven different crops in 131 commercially managed fields across North America to see how many crops were "pollinator-limited" — i.e., crops whose yields would be higher were there more pollinators.
Distressingly, five out of every seven crops they analyzed were pollinator-limited — including favorites like apples, cherries, and blueberries. "Honeybee colonies are weaker than they used to be and wild bees are declining, probably by a lot," said the paper's senior author, Rachael Winfree. "Fewer bees, in turn, mean less food, and more pressure on struggling honeybee populations to replace pollination from native bees."
As Winfree notes, this reliance on a single species is risky, "setting us up for food security problems." Worse yet, the study shows the likely impact of neonics on our food supply isn't decades away; it's already happening right now.
For the present, industries can use stopgap solutions—like breeding and shipping out more honeybees to make up for lost colonies — but these strategies may ultimately fail if we don't address the source of the vast and wasteful neonic contamination.
Looking into the future, low yields may mean that some of our favorite foods become far pricier or unavailable entirely — an outcome with high human and economic costs.
In the United States, the production of crops that rely on pollination is valued at more than $50 billion annually. Indeed, one in every three bites of food is reliant on pollinators. Food workers — an umbrella term for a behemoth industry that includes everyone from farm workers to restaurant cooks and servers to grocery store clerks — could experience increased job disruptions, too, should the markets for these foods become upended.
Recently, a group of local New York chefs — recognizing their reliance on bees and an abundant and diverse food supply to keep restaurants open, workers employed, and their food healthy and delicious—asked state legislators to rein in wasteful neonic use statewide.
Faced with rising food costs, more families may also struggle to put food on the table. Already, more than 10.5 percent of all U.S. families — or more than 35 million Americans — experienced food insecurity at some point in 2019. During the COVID-19 crisis, that number has ballooned. For those unsure where their next meal may come from, even moderate increases in food costs are felt acutely. Potentially significant changes to food costs or availability — particularly for our most nutrient-dense produce — would likely hit low-income families hardest.
The stakes are high, but the solution is simple: We must rein in needless neonic use that threatens our food supply and contaminates our land and water on a vast scale.
In the same turn, we must also support regenerative agriculture practices, which eliminate the need for synthetic pesticides like neonics. A more just and sustainable food system that protects workers, consumers, and the wild world also protects our food security — it's what we need and it's within reach.
Daniel Raichel is a staff attorney and a member of the Lands & Wildlife program, focusing on protecting our nation's bee populations from the ever-growing threats to their health and existence—in particular, the use of bee-toxic pesticides. Before joining the Wildlife team, Raichel was codirector of NRDC's Community Fracking Defense Project and an advocate for the cleanup of industrial pollution in the New York region. Prior to that, he was a member of the Columbia Environmental Law Clinic. Raichel holds a bachelor's degree in English from Cornell University and a J.D. from Columbia Law School. He works out of the Chicago office.
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Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Daniel Raichel
As massive numbers of bees and other pollinators keep dying across the globe, study after study continues to connect these deaths to neonicotinoid pesticides (A.K.A. "neonics"). With the science piling up, and other countries starting to take critical pollinator-saving action, here's a quick primer on all things neonics:
1. What are neonics?
Neonics are neurotoxic insecticides, meaning they are pesticides designed to kill insects by attacking their nerve cells. Neonics permanently bind to nerve cells, overstimulating and destroying them. Insects poisoned with neonics often exhibit uncontrollable shaking or twitching, paralysis, and—eventually—death.
Neonics are also "systemic," meaning they dissolve in water and are absorbed by plants, making the plant itself—including its nectar, pollen and fruit—toxic. Neonics are often applied as a "drench" to a plant's roots, or as a coating on a plant's seed, which the plant then soaks up as it grows. The levels applied can often be so high that they make the plant toxic to insects for years after the initial treatment.
2. Where are neonics used?
Everywhere. Neonics are the most popular insecticides in the U.S. and can be found in lawn and garden bug sprays, flea and tick treatments for pets and livestock, and food grown in farm fields across the country. As this map* shows, the neonic imidacloprid is used just about every place that people grow crops. And that's just the tip of the iceberg—the map doesn't account for non-agricultural uses (e.g., golf courses, lawns, gardens) or the four other neonic chemicals also extensively used in the U.S.
3. Do neonics harm bees?
Absolutely. Neonics are designed to kill insects, and bees are insects. A large and growing body of research shows that neonic use is a leading cause of the massive bee die-offs around the globe that threaten our food security, agricultural economy and environment. Bees at risk include not only commercial honey bees, but the more than 4,000 species of native bees that live in the U.S., like the rusty patched bumble bee or the bees seen here in every color of the rainbow.
4. Do neonics harm other wildlife?
Yes. Neonic use has been shown to cause significant losses of aquatic invertebrates, a critical food source to birds and fish. Neonic use has also been linked with documented losses of bird and butterfly populations.
5. Do neonics contaminate our water?
Yes. Neonics can persist in soil for a long time, where rain or irrigation water easily carries them into surrounding lakes, streams or sources for drinking water. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has found that neonics contaminate waterbodies nationwide, often at levels that harm critical aquatic insects and other wildlife. That's no surprise given how wastefully neonics are often applied. For example, when neonics are applied as seed treatment, only about 5 percent of the pesticide is absorbed by the plant at best—the other ~95 percent stays in the soil. And with up to 100 percent of conventional corn and 50 percent of soybean seed now treated with neonics, it's not hard to guess how they keep ending up in our water.
6. Are neonics in our food?
Yes. Neonic residues are found in 86% of honey in the U.S. and also in blueberries, cranberries, peaches and other foods popular with kids and adults alike. Because neonics are actually inside the fruit, vegetables, and other foods we eat, they can't be washed off.
7. Is there concern that neonics may be harming our health?
Yes. Neonics attack parts of insect nerve cells that are similar to those found in humans, making researchers and health experts concerned that what's bad for bees could be bad for us too. In particular, emerging research suggests that exposure to neonics in the womb or early in life could be linked with developmental defects, including autism, heart deformations, muscle tremors, and memory loss.
8. What is our federal government doing about neonics?
Not much. Several years back, the U.S. EPA introduced the "bee hazard" icon and limited restrictions for some neonic products, but these baby steps have failed to stem massive bee and pollinator losses. EPA has also long been studying the impacts of neonics through its "registration review" process. Although these reviews could result in life-saving protections for pollinators, don't hold your breath—EPA just quietly pushed back the deadlines for their completion, and isn't expected to take needed action anyway while still under Trump and Andrew Wheeler's direction.
9. What have other countries done?
A: Other countries are moving to ban outdoor uses of neonics. In 2018, The European Union voted to completely ban all outdoor uses of three neonics, citing their impacts to honey bees. Canada recently followed suit, recommending that the country similarly phase out all outdoor uses of the same neonics in 3-5 years.
10. What should replace neonics if we limited their use?
For the most part, nothing. Neonics are often used where they simply aren't effective. In 2014, EPA found that neonic soybean seed treatments "likely provide $0 in benefits to growers," yet up to half of all conventional soybean seed is still neonic-treated. Other recent research shows neonics to be similarly ineffective on corn, yet up to 100 percent of conventional corn seed gets a neonic treatment. These uses account for the vast bulk of neonics entering the environment and—since they don't work—they don't need replacing. Agroecological practices—like diverse crop rotations, cover cropping, and introducing natural enemies of crop pests (AKA "good bugs")—can eliminate the need for other neonic uses. In those instances where an insecticide is needed, less harmful substitutes for neonics are available.
*This map is from 2014, the last year USGS included neonic-treated seeds in its annual pesticide survey (even though treated seed usage has not diminished since). To understand how massive treated seed use is, compare this map to the 2015 map, and see the world of difference for yourself.
The Center for Biological Diversity Thursday urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to deny Bayer CropScience's request to allow the highly bee-toxic pesticide flupyradifurone to be sprayed on tobacco in states like Kentucky and North Carolina.
Although flupyradifurone is known to harm pollinators like bees and freshwater invertebrates like mussels, the pesticide maker is asking the EPA to approve its use across more than 300,000 acres in areas that are home to more than three dozen protected species.
"Expanding use of this dangerous chemical will threaten many endangered species, as well as bees already battered by neonicotinoid pesticides," said Tara Cornelisse, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Pollinators and many aquatic invertebrates across the Southeast are already struggling. Approval of yet another highly toxic pesticide for tobacco will add to their toxic load and likely result in further losses."
Flupyradifurone is a systemic pesticide with the same mode of action—and potential for harm—as neonicotinoid pesticides, a leading cause of pollinator declines. While the pesticide industry has touted flupyradifurone as a replacement for neonicotinoid pesticides, it poses many of the same risks to non-target species as neonicotinoids.
For example, flupyradifurone impairs learning, memory and affinity for nectar rewards in honey bees. Further, flupyradifurone is highly water soluble and decreases the viability of freshwater mussel larvae; it also negatively impacts aquatic mayfly larvae survival at levels comparable to neonicotinoid pesticides like imidacloprid and clothianidin.
Because flupyradifurone's negative effects worsen with increased dosage, its use on tobacco would compound the harm already caused by widespread use of other neonicotinoids on corn and soy in tobacco-growing counties.
"Approval of this harmful neurotoxin would create a dangerous double-whammy for bees and freshwater mussels already suffering from exposure to neonics," said Cornelisse. "Expanded use of this harmful pesticide is a risk we can't afford to take."
Among the 38 threatened and endangered species living in areas where tobacco is grown are 17 species of freshwater mussels that play essential water-purifying roles in aquatic ecosystems.
The greatest amount of tobacco acreage under consideration for the pesticide's use is in North Carolina and Kentucky. Other areas include Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina.
Endangered freshwater mussel species that would face increased harm include the Georgia spinymussel, dwarf wedgemussel, rayed bean and orangefoot pimpleback.
In addition, flupyradifurone is likely to harm and kill native bees that are important for the pollination and survival of nine endangered flowering plants, including smooth coneflower and Short's bladderpod.
The Center for Biological Diversity and allies sued the EPA over its initial approval of flupyradifurone, challenging the agency's refusal to take common sense measures to protect endangered species from this new and controversial pesticide. This litigation is in its initial stages at the Washington, D.C. Court of Appeals.
The period for public comment on the approval request ends on Friday. Although the EPA often approves new uses quickly, the agency has not established a timeframe for this approval process.
The Trump administration has lifted an Obama-era ban on the use of genetically modified crops and pesticides linked to bee decline in certain national wildlife refuges where farming is allowed, Reuters reported Saturday.
In a memo signed Aug. 2, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Gregory J. Sheehan said the move was necessary to provide adequate food for waterfowl.
"There may be situations, however, where use of GMO crop seeds is essential to best fulfill the purposes of the refuge and the needs of birds and other wildlife," Sheehan wrote.
Boosting waterfowl populations dovetails with the interests of sportspeople who hunt ducks and other birds, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has made expanding hunting on national lands a priority, Reuters reported.
But environmental groups argue the decision comes at the expense of other species.
"Industrial agriculture has no place on public lands dedicated to conservation of biological diversity and the protection of our most vulnerable species, including pollinators like bumble bees and monarch butterflies. The Trump administration's approval to use toxic pesticides and genetically modified crops is an insult to our national wildlife refuges and the wildlife that rely on them," President and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife Jamie Rappaport Clark said in a statement.
Jim Kurth, head of the refuge system under Obama, announced the ban in 2014, arguing that the use of neonicotinoids led to plants whose tissues harmed "non-target" species. Moreover, he said that "refuges throughout the country successfully meet wildlife management objectives without" genetically modified crops or the pesticides they are engineered to withstand, Reuters reported.
Defenders of Wildlife further noted that the populations of game birds like geese and ducks are currently doing fine without the help of genetically modified crops.
Sheehan, however, has reversed the blanket ban and said that the use of genetically modified crops and neonicotinoids would be considered in the more than 50 farming-friendly refuges on a case-by-case basis.
The move came a day after California's Department of Pesticide Regulation released a risk assessment finding that the use of four neonicotinoids on certain crops, including the corn and sorghum often grown in refuges, could cause more harm to pollinators than previously thought, The Center for Biological Diversity reported.
"Agricultural pesticides, especially bee-killing neonics, have no place on our national wildlife refuges," senior Center for Biological Diversity attorney Hannah Connor said. "This huge backward step will harm bees and other pollinators already in steep decline simply to appease pesticide-makers and promote mono-culture farming techniques that trigger increased pesticide use. It's senseless and shameful."
By Dan Nosowitz
But a new study from the University of Guelph finds that honeybees aren't the only non-pest creatures that are coming into contact with the pesticides.
Neonicotinoids, sometimes called neonics, are pesticides chemically similar to nicotine, hence their name. There are several different varieties, with the three most common being imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin. They're exceedingly prevalent in the U.S. and were also used in Europe—at least before they were banned in the EU earlier this year.
Neonicotinoids have been repeatedly linked to honeybee colony collapse disorder, and concern for the pollinators is generally stated as a major reason for bans and restrictions. But research on other animals has not been as extensive; a study in 2014 found a correlation between the increase in neonicotinoid use and a decrease in insect-eating birds, but, as we all learned in high school, correlation does not necessarily mean causation.
This new study examined carcasses of wild turkeys in southern Ontario and found that nearly 25 percent of them had detectable levels of neonicotinoids in their livers. Wild turkeys are omnivores, eating basically anything they can catch or find, and it's fairly common for them to eat seeds. Neonicotinoids are generally sold as seeds treated with the brightly colored pesticide, and corn and soy coated seeds were found in some of the birds' digestive systems.
What this study does not examine is the effects of consuming neonicotinoids on wild turkeys (or any other animal). Last year, the EPA released an assessment finding that seed-eating birds can be harmed by consuming neonic-coated seeds; likely effects include reduced reproductive activity and migratory abilities.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.
Below is a transcript of the video.
Rebecca Riley, senior attorney, NRDC:
Right now, we're in a real crisis when it comes to bees.
Every year, about a third of our honeybee colonies collapse. And the 4,000 native bee species in the United States suffer from those same threats that honeybees do. Those are species like bumblebees and carpenter bees and other really specialized kinds of bees.
Bees are a really critical part of our food system. One out of every three bites of food we eat, every day, every week, is dependent on bees for pollination. That's a whole different range of foods, from fruits to nuts to vegetables. Things like almonds are heavily dependent on bees for pollination, tomatoes, pumpkins, blueberries.
And it's not just plants. Small animals, birds depend on the fruits and seeds produced in the wild, and those fruits and seeds are dependent on bees for pollination.
We think that the bee population crash is caused by several factors, including pesticides, habitat loss and disease, and those three factors really work together.
Neonics are a really serious threat to bees. They're what's called a systemic pesticide, and that means it's in the pollen, it's in the nectar, it's in the leaves, and the plant itself becomes the pesticide.
Now you can imagine why that's a problem for bees, because bees are visiting these plants, and they're picking up the neonics, and they're bringing them back to the hive.
One of the most important things we need to do is appropriately regulate neonics. The EU just banned the three most commonly used neonics in Europe. We see Canada taking steps to cut back on neonics, and we haven't done that here in the United States. We've allowed them to be overused throughout the country.
So EPA really needs to step up and to do its job. States have started to restrict neonics to make sure that we're not overusing these on golf courses, in parks, and in our backyards, and that's a really important next step.
If we continue to ignore this problem, we will lose bee species in the United States.
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A major global assessment of global bird populations paints a grim outlook for our feathered friends.
A new report from BirdLife International finds that 40 percent of the world's 11,000 bird species are in decline, with one in eight bird species now under some threat of extinction.
The State of the World's Birds 2018 report, which took five years to compile, even shows that a number of well-known birds, including the snowy owl, Atlantic puffin and the European turtle-dove, are now at risk of extinction.
The researchers note that the decline in global bird populations has been driven by human activity. According to the report, the expansion and intensification of agriculture impacts 1,091 (74 percent) of globally threatened birds.
For instance—the use of neonicotinoids, a controversial class of neurotoxic insecticides connected to widespread bee population declines—has also been linked to white-crowned sparrows losing a quarter of their body mass and fat stores and impairing their migratory orientation, one study found.
Logging, overexploitation, urbanization, pollution, disturbance and invasive species were also identified as drivers of the world's diminishing bird populations.
"The data are unequivocal. We are undergoing a steady and continuing deterioration in the status of the world's birds," Tris Allinson, BirdLife's Senior Global Science Officer and editor-in-chief of the report, said in a statement. "The threats driving the avian extinction crisis are many and varied, but invariably of humanity's making."
Notably, the report also identified human-induced climate change as one of the most serious long-term threats to birds. The iconic, once-widespread snowy owl—recently up-listed to "Vulnerable" on the International Union of Conservation of Nature Red List—has experienced rapid declines likely due to changes in snowmelt and snow cover affecting the availability and distribution of prey.
Similarly, sea birds such as Atlantic puffin and the black-legged kittiwake—both listed as Vulnerable to extinction—have also seen a depletion of fish due to overfishing and climate change.
As a press release for the report noted, this isn't just bad news for birds, it's also a warning for the planet as a whole: "Because birds are so widespread, being found in nearly every type of ecosystem, and one of the most studied groups of animals, they are excellent indicators of the state of the environment."
There is some good news in the report. Conservation interventions have saved at least 25 bird species threatened with extinction, the researchers found. The red-billed curassow, the pink pigeon of Mauritius and the black-faced spoonbill, which were each listed as Critically Endangered are now down-listed to Endangered.
The report outlines actions and changes to help birds, including restoration of habitats key to birds, eradicating and controlling invasive species and identifying the most vulnerable bird species in order to protect them.
"Although the report provides a sobering update on the state of birds and biodiversity, and of the challenges ahead, it also clearly demonstrates that solutions do exist and that significant, lasting success can be achieved" said Patricia Zurita, BirdLife's CEO.
The State of the World's Birds 2018 report
Monday, the Washington Department of Ecology sided with Center for Food Safety and numerous other community and conservation groups, and denied shellfish growers a permit to spray imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid, on shellfish beds on Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, in southwest Washington. The requested permit would have allowed shellfish growers from Willapa-Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association to spray this neurotoxic insecticide into water for the first time, in order to kill native burrowing shrimp.
"Center for Food Safety applauds the Washington Department of Ecology for making the right decision this time around and saying 'no' to the use of neonicotinoids in Washington bay waters," said Amy van Saun, staff attorney in Center for Food Safety's Pacific Northwest office."The state followed the laws requiring protection of this crucial aquatic ecosystem, the wildlife that depend on it, and the public from a dangerous plan to continue the chemical legacy of the industrial shellfish industry."
"We are pleased to see that after taking a hard look at the science that Ecology reached the inescapable conclusion that there must be a better way to find a balance within Willapa Bay that will allow oyster growers thrive while protecting this unique and fragile place," said Andrew Hawley with the Western Environmental Law Center.
After initially granting a request to spray imidacloprid, one of the oldest and most toxic neonicotinoids (the pesticides that are extremely harmful to pollinators, aquatic invertebrates and birds), the Washington Department of Ecology withdrew the permit in 2015 due to public outcry, especially from Seattle chefs. But the Growers Association again applied to spray imidacloprid, never before approved for aquatic use, onto shellfish beds to kill burrowing or ghost shrimp, a native species the growers say loosens the substrate and causes oysters and clams to sink. The Washington Department of Ecology completed a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) to evaluate the new science on imidacloprid and neonicotinoids' impact on the aquatic environment, concluding that the use of imidacloprid in Willapa Bay/Grays Harbor would have various harmful impacts, including:
- Significant, unavoidable impacts to sediment quality and benthic invertebrates.
- Negative impacts to juvenile worms and crustaceans in areas treated with imidacloprid and nearby areas covered by incoming tides.
- Negative impacts to fish and birds caused by killing sources of food and disrupting the food web.
- Concern about non-lethal impacts to invertebrates in the water column and sediment.
- A risk of impacts from imidacloprid even at low concentrations.
- Increased uncertainty about long-term, non-lethal and cumulative impacts.
Center for Food Safety, along with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Environmental Law Center, commented on the SEIS, urging the Washington Department of Ecology to consider all the latest science pointing to the extreme danger posed by water contamination with neonicotinoids and not to grant the permit based on both data gaps and the disturbing evidence of harm from neonicotinoids, including to aquatic species like Dungeness crabs, a commercially-valuable species.
"Dumping imidacloprid, or any other pesticide, into state waters depended on by so many plants and animals, including people, was never a good, long-term solution," said Lori Ann Burd, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's environmental health program. "It's important that we find sound, sustainable answers to the challenges Washington oyster farmers are facing that help balance, rather than poison, the environment we all share."
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A study published Thursday in Current Biology is being hailed in a University of Exeter press release as a major "breakthrough" in developing bee-friendly insecticides. But some environmentalists think the research is asking the wrong questions to begin with.
"We need to find a way to change our agricultural model, and switch to non-chemical pest control methods that work with nature. These techniques exist and are effective," Tyrell told DW.
The study, conducted by the University of Exeter, Rothamsted Research and Bayer AG, isolated the enzymes in bees that determine their sensitivity to different neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are controversial pesticides that have been restricted in the EU since 2013 due to their impact on bee populations.
While previous research had indicated that bees responded better to certain neonicotinoids because they could metabolize them faster, the researchers were able to isolate the subfamily of enzymes called cytochrome P450 responsible for breaking down neonicotinoids.
The subfamily, called CYP9Q, metabolizes thiacloprid well and imidacloprid poorly, the study found.
University of Exeter research-team-leader Chriss Bass hoped the findings would help develop bee-safe pesticides.
"Identifying these key enzymes provides valuable tools to screen new pesticides early in their development to see if bees can break them down," he said in the University of Exeter press release.
However, it should be noted that Bayer, which manufactures neonicotinoids, helped fund the study, and Bass seemed almost more concerned with the manufacturer's bottom line than he did with the health of the bees.
"It can take a decade and $260 million to develop a single pesticide, so this knowledge can help us avoid wasting time and money on pesticides that will end up with substantial use restrictions due to intrinsic bee toxicity," he wrote.
Just because bees can break down thiacloprid doesn't mean it's entirely healthy for them to do so, Dave Goulson of the University of Sussex told DW. He pointed to research he conducted in 2017 showing the pesticide did hurt bumblebee colonies.
"Despite the lower toxicity to bees compared to some other neonicotinoid pesticides, there is evidence that thiacloprid use does harm bumblebee nests under field conditions," he told DW. "It is less toxic, but applied at a much higher rate."
However, Lund University researcher Maj Rundlöf, who published a 2015 study showing neonicotinoids hurt bee populations, said it was helpful to distinguish between more and less harmful products.
"All neonicotinoids are not the same," she told ScienceNews. "It's a bit unrealistic to damn a whole group of pesticides."
But Tyrell's point, that even insecticides that take out only their target can have disastrous consequences for ecosystems, was born out by the results of two recent French studies reported by The Guardian Tuesday. The studies found that in, the past decade and a half, populations of once-common bird species like the Eurasian skylark and ortolan bunting had declined by at least one third in the French countryside. Researchers hypothesized that the decline is likely due to pesticides that kill the insects birds depend on for food.
"There are hardly any insects left, that's the number one problem," Vincent Bretagnolle, an ecologist at the Centre for Biological Studies in Chize, told The Guardian.
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The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded in a new assessment that "most uses" of three widely used neonicotinoids—imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam—pose a risk to wild bees and honeybees, which play a crucial role in pollination across the globe.
The conclusion, based on analysis of more than 1,500 studies, will likely prompt a total ban on the pesticides from all fields across the European Union when the issue comes to a vote next month, the Guardian reported.
The EU already banned the pesticides on flowering crops in 2013. But the new report suggests the existing ban is insufficient, as using the chemicals in any outdoor setting can pose a risk to bees.
Thousands of studies have identified neonicotinoids as key contributors to declining pollinator populations. The chemicals have even been found to harm birds and aquatic invertebrates.
EPA: Neonicotinoid Pesticides Pose Serious Risks to Birds, Aquatic Life https://t.co/3p06Sc5VDD #neonics… https://t.co/MPr2EZL7cF— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1513613767.0
"The availability of such a substantial amount of data as well as the guidance has enabled us to produce very detailed conclusions," said Jose Tarazona, head of EFSA's pesticides unit.
"There is variability in the conclusions, due to factors such as the bee species, the intended use of the pesticide and the route of exposure. Some low risks have been identified, but overall the risk to the three types of bees we have assessed is confirmed."
Bayer said it "fundamentally disagrees" with EFSA's analysis. And a Syngenta spokesman told the Guardian, "EFSA sadly continues to rely on a [bee risk guidance] document that is overly conservative, extremely impractical and would lead to a ban of most if not all insecticides, including organic products."
But environmental groups celebrated the new EFSA report.
"The evidence is overwhelming that bees, and the crops and plants they pollinate, are at dire risk from neonicotinoid pesticides," Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU food policy adviser, said. "National governments must stop dithering and back the proposed EU neonicotinoid ban as the first step to prevent the catastrophic collapse of bee populations."
Conservation Groups, House Reps Call for EPA to Respect Science, Take Action on Pollinator-Killing Pesticides… https://t.co/IrLcR1qlxJ— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1518734108.0
Conservation Groups, House Reps Call for EPA to Respect Science, Take Action on Pollinator-Killing Pesticides
Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D.-Ore.), alongside Representative Jim McGovern (D.-Mass.) and conservation, farmworker, farmer and consumer groups, on Wednesday reintroduced the Saving America's Pollinators Act, which aims to suspend the registration of certain neonicotinoid insecticides until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducts a full scientific review.
In addition, 16 environmental and conservation groups have collected more than 100,000 public comments urging the agency to rein in the rampant overuse of neonicotinoid pesticides—a leading cause of pollinator population declines.
Thousands of scientific studies implicate neonicotinoid pesticides, or "neonics," as key contributors to declining pollinator populations. EPA's own scientists have found that neonics pose far-reaching risks to birds and aquatic invertebrates.
Last week, at the request of industry, the EPA extended its comment period on preliminary ecological and human health risk assessments for the neonicotinoids clothianidin, thiamethoxam and dinotefuran, and a preliminary ecological risk assessment for the neonicotinoid imidacloprid. The EPA's risk assessments found deadly impacts to birds from neonic-treated seeds, poisoned insect prey and contaminated grasses.
"EPA's recent assessment confirms what the science has already shown: that neonicotinoids are highly toxic not just to bees, but to aquatic species and birds," said Nichelle Harriott, science and regulatory director at Beyond Pesticides. "To protect our waterways and pollinators it is imperative that action be taken on these chemicals."
"Our nation's beekeepers continue to suffer unacceptable mortality of 40 percent annually and higher," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of Center for Food Safety. "Water contamination by these insecticides is virtually out of control. Wild pollinators and wetland-dependent birds are in danger. EPA must recognize the vast scientific literature showing the hazards of these chemicals and act to protect bees and the environment."
University researchers have found that tiny amounts of neonics are enough to cause migrating songbirds to lose their sense of direction and become emaciated. A recent study by USGS researchers found neonics widespread in the Great Lakes at levels that may potentially harm aquatic insects—the foundation of healthy aquatic ecosystems.
"By harming pollinators like bees and butterflies, and natural pest control agents like birds and beneficial insects, neonicotinoids are sabotaging the very organisms on which farmers depend," said Cynthia Palmer, director of pesticides science and regulation at American Bird Conservancy.
These chemicals have become ubiquitous in our food supply. Testing carried out by American Bird Conservancy and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found neonicotinoids in 9 out of 10 bites of food from House and Senate dining halls, with some foods containing as many as five types of neonics.
Europe has instituted a temporary ban on neonicotinoids based on their harms to pollinators. Canada's pesticide regulatory agency has recommended banning the most widely used neonicotinoid based on harms to aquatic ecosystems.
"When presented with the science about neonics and bees, the question becomes 'In what imaginary world could this astoundingly efficient bee-killing, persistent insecticide, used countrywide in extreme overkill quantities, not be harming our pollinators?' said Dr. Luke Goembel, chemist and legislative vice chair with the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association. "The only thing that is keeping the U.S. from joining other nations in banning the use of these devastating poisons is the immense profit that fuels PR campaigns, intense lobbying efforts, and questionable studies designed to mislead us on the harm these poisons do."
Given the ongoing obstruction by EPA leadership, however, Representatives Blumenauer and McGovern are offering a legislative remedy to address the national pollinator crisis.
"Scientists at EPA are treated as irrelevant now because they are no longer part of the decision-making process," said Betsy Southerland, former director of EPA's office of Science and Technology. "All environmental decisions come out of Administrator Pruitt's private meetings with industry and agribusiness."
"The EPA has an important mission—protecting people and the environment from harm," said Genna Reed, science and policy analyst for Union of Concerned Scientists. "The EPA's leadership can't do their job unless they listen to their own scientists and make decisions that reflect the facts. At a time when EPA staff is shrinking and science advisors at the agency are underutilized, it is critical that the agency act to enforce safeguards that really protect people, informed by the evidence."
EPA: Neonicotinoid Pesticides Pose Serious Risks to Birds, Aquatic Life https://t.co/3p06Sc5VDD #neonics… https://t.co/MPr2EZL7cF— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1513613767.0