European Agency concludes neonicotinoid pesticides too dangerous for bees

EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, came out with a report today concluding that the neonicotinoid pesticides, or "neonics", pose an unacceptably high risk to bees, whose pollination services are critical to agriculture.

Neonics are a relatively new class of pesticides that are "systemic", meaning they are taken up into the treated plant, making the plant itself toxic to insects. That's bad news for pollinators like bees, and other beneficial insects that forage from the nectar, pollen, and sap of plants.

EFSA reviewed the science on neonics and bees, and made two important findings: first, neonicotinoid pesticides pose an unacceptably high risk to bees, and second, the company-sponsored science is too flawed to be useful.

The Guardian reported that the spokesperson for Bayer, the company that manufacturers clothianidin and imidacloprid, two neonics widely used here in the US, is "being recalled to explain 'discrepancies' in his evidence. 'Our inquiry has identified apparent flaws in the assessment of imidacloprid,' said Joan Walley MP, chair of the environmental audit committee."

I have been reviewing some of Bayer's studies for an Issue Paper that I am preparing on loopholes in the US pesticide registration system. Clothianidin is one of the examples I detail in the paper, including the flaws in the Bayer-sponsored field studies, and how the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nonetheless ushered the pesticide, along with the rest of the neonics, through the regulatory loophole and onto store shelves. (My report is expected to be released in early February)

The EFSA scientific review of clothianidin found that the Bayer-sponsored study of bees foraging in a field planted with clothianidin-treated seeds was unreliable and deficient in several ways: colony size was not reported, field plots with and without pesticide were too close together leading to cross-contamination, and pesticide residue was detected in control (untreated) samples (see clothianidin report, page 25). Our report shows that the US EPA identified the same flaws, and approved the neonics anyway.

EFSA's report found it lacked enough data to evaluate the risks properly, but with the data that was available,  EFSA and its scientific experts found risks to bees associated with neonic pesticide exposures from pollen and nectar contaminated with pesticide, from pesticide dust, and from exposure from guttation (sap from the plant).

In the US the popularity of the neonics has grown over the last decade, as they've replaced older war-era chemicals, especially the organophosphate pesticides (OPs), that were responsible for many worker poisonings, wildlife kills, and even long-term or permanent damage in children exposed in the womb (see my blog here for scientific evidence of long-term harm).

For these reasons, environmental health and worker protection groups including NRDC have long advocated banning the OPs, and in fact US EPA did cancel most residential uses of OPs to protect children. But, the replacement pesticides come at a price, since agriculture will collapse without the vital pollination services provided by bees and other beneficial insects.

EPA should cancel all uses of neonics where they can lead to harm for bees and other beneficial insects, and chemical manufacturers like Bayer and Syngenta that make neonics should use their resources to develop less harmful alternatives instead of defending the neonics. And, growers need support to transition away from chemical-intensive farming practices before the whole toxic card game collapses in on itself.

EFSA has more on bee health on their website here.

Nature News reported on this issue here

    About the Authors

    Jennifer Sass

    Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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