The Success of Neonics

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By Elena Day

Early June is busy with garden weeding and mulching. Mulching is a necessity as sparse rainfall and/or seasonal drought often occur. It also suppresses weeds and adds organic matter to the soil as it decomposes over the course of the season.

I have noticed that pollinators, including honeybees, are few. At this time of year my poppies are generally abuzz with bees. Neonicotinoids (“neonics”) as a class have been implicated since 2008 in honeybee colony collapse (Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD). Modeled after the natural insecticide, nicotine, neonics act on the central nervous system of insects causing excitation of nerves, eventual paralysis and finally death.

Neonics are systemic pesticides that are taken up by the plant and transported to leaves and flowers, root and stems, pollen and nectar. Thereby they are persistent. (Contact insecticides remain on the plants’ surface.) Neonics are effective against sucking aphids and whiteflies as well as beetles (flea beetles) and cutworms (Lepidoptera).

Bayer patented Imidacloprid in 1985 as the first commercial neonicotinoid. Neonics were developed as an alternative to more damaging insecticides. Neonicotinoid use became widespread in the 1990s. Other neonics on the market today include Syngenta’s Thiamethoxan and Bayer’s Clothianidin.

Neonics account for 30 percent of the global pesticide market. They are routinely used on 95 percent of corn and canola crops, the majority of cotton, sorghum, and sugar beets and 50 percent of soybeans. They are sprayed on apples, cherries, peaches, oranges, berries, leafy greens, tomatoes, potatoes, cereal grains, rice, nuts and wine grapes. It’s big money. Bayer reaped $262 million on Clothianidin, marketed as “Poncho,” sales in 2009. Imidacloprid remains the most widely used of the neonics, however.

Not only are neonics sprayed on food crops but home garden flowers/ornamentals and vegetable starts at local big box store garden centers are generally drenched with neonics.  Seeds are coated with neonics and soils are often wetted as well. Neonics are water soluble and have been found in stream samples in both the U. S. and Canada.

According to commercial beekeepers in the U.S., upwards of 40 percent of honeybee colonies succumbed to Colony Collapse Disorder in 2012. (This was especially significant in California’s almond groves, which are in the news again because of the ongoing California drought.) In 2013 the EPA and the USDA formed a task force to study the reasons for the decline. Of course their “review” won’t be available until 2019. In December 2013 the European Union placed a two-year moratorium on three neonic insecticides. Since the mid 2000s beekeepers have lost approximately a third of their hives to CCD every year. The chemical companies and neonic proponents are claiming that only 23 percent colony loss in 2014 indicates that neonics are not to blame for CCD.

Five environmental groups, including The Sierra Club and Pesticide Action Network, and  four prominent beekeepers had asked that EPA suspend the use of Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam in 2013. EPA declined. A suit was filed against EPA by the Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Health in March 2013.

The environmentalists and beekeepers had also asked that EPA stop “conditionally registering” new pesticides to allow sales without premarket review. This was the situation with Bayer’s Clothianidin in 2003. Bayer submitted required documents four years later. EPA reviewers said the Bayer’s field study was so poor that it was “invalid.” Yet Clothianidin remained on the market.

In July 2013 Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced the Saving America’s Pollinators Act to suspend the use of four neonics including Clothianidin. H.R. 2692 remains in committee.

One hundred crops provide 90 percent of food worldwide. Seventy of these crops are pollinated by honeybees. It would be reasonable that EPA assume a precautionary attitude  rather than a hurried register of new chemical agricultural products.

One cannot help but wonder whether bees and other pollinators stand a chance. Cold winters and slow springs coupled with overuse of neonics contribute to colony loss. Bees and other pollinators face loss of innumerable nectar and pollen sources with the now-yearly ritual of Roundup spraying over millions of acres of farmland. Brown/yellow fields do not provide bee food. It is likely that colonies might take a longer time to recover numbers when forage is sparse.

The Roundup/glyphosated fields are also most aesthetically displeasing when springtime is supposed to be bathing our eyes with variant hues of green. And who wants to eat food from fields that have been regularly deadened with chemicals rather than by nature’s seasonal cycle.

President Obama’s strategy to save bees is to plant seven million acres in bee food forage. It’s not enough if the synergistic effect of the chemical soup of pesticides remains unaddressed.

Citizens should be gravely concerned about Obama’s pursuit of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. The U.S. Senate recently awarded Obama Trade Promotion Authority or “fast track”—if the House of Representatives also allows him fast track. Congress will have 90 days to pass the trade deal on an up or down vote.  There will be no Congressional committee review, no amendments, and debate would be limited to 20 hours.

Tucked away in Section 2, Trade Negotiating Objectives, is a clause that states that negotiators must fight against any “barriers” to markets, such as labeling genetically engineered (GE) foods.  Monsanto and other agrochemical corporations would have a right to challenge national or state laws that require GE and country of origin labeling. Food inspections would likely be weakened as well. Note that currently 64 countries require GE foods to be labeled, including Japan, China, Brazil, and the European Union. One cannot help but wonder why U.S. citizens continue to be denied what is currently legislated in 64 other countries. TPP, if allowed to stand as is, will allow governments and multinational corporations to challenge and assuredly strip consumers in other countries of the right to know what they are ingesting. Call your representative and hope he or she can be persuaded to deny President Obama fast track authority.

I end this column with the hope that the June firefly display is undiminished.

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