The Government Pollinator Health Task Force: After a year of waiting, will their report protect bees, or Big Ag?

The White House Pollinator Task Force, appointed June 2014 by a Memorandum from President Obama to tackle the crisis of bees, butterflies and other pollinators, is set to issue its recommendations sometime next month - about half a year after their promised deadline (December 2014). Even with the delay, that might be a hopeful sign the multi-agency task force, co-chaired by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), is working hard to produce a robust program to stem the sharp population declines of these important insects.

Unfortunately, there are worrying indications instead that the agencies, under heavy pressure from the powerful Agrochemical industry, are reluctant to order strong action against the pesticides that scientists say are among the prime culprits behind the decline in managed honey bees and wild native bees on which so much of our food supply depends. The need is clear for swift, strong steps to protect pollinators including commercial honeybees and the over 4 thousand wild bee species in North America.

The scientific evidence increasingly points to neonicotinoid (neonics) pesticides as a significant-- and preventable!--cause of bee deaths. Neonics were first introduced in the mid-1990s and are now the fastest growing and most heavily used class of insecticides in the United States. Neonics account for roughly 25 percent of the global agrochemical market and are the most widely used class of insecticides in the world today. In the US they are used primarily on corn, soybeans, cotton, vegetables and fruits, orchards, and grapes.

In addition to being applied to crops, neonic pesticides are also applied to seeds before being planted, a use that has raised public concern because there is no systematic tracking of when, where, and how much pesticides are used for this purpose (seed treatments are not included in the USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service, NASS database). Of further concern, in at least some cases seed treatments have little or no benefit to crops according to EPA's own study, making it a wasteful use for growers. Growers can hardly avoid using pesticide-treated seeds as they are often the only ones commercially available. Prophylactic uses of pesticides such as seed-treatments are inconsistent with an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) framework which favors the use of non-chemical treatments and pesticides only in cases where the pest population is high enough to pose an economic concern for farmers. Seed treatments frequently include not only insecticides like neonics, but also fungicides and other pesticides, and are done to crop seeds like corn, soybeans, cotton and wheat, as well as many commercial fruit and vegetable seeds. (The sale of seeds, including pesticide-treated seeds, is regulated by USDA under the Federal Seed Act).

These insecticides were designed to kill insects that harm crops, but like all insecticides, they also kill beneficial species like bees. The problem is that neonics are a systemic pesticide. That is, they turn the entire plant into a poison factory, including the nectar and pollen which bees eat and bring back to their hives. At high doses they can kill bees directly, but even at the lower doses more commonly found on farms and in gardens, these pervasive chemicals harm bees' ability to forage, navigate and reproduce. An international task force looked at some 800 peer-reviewed studies and concluded that "a compelling body of evidence has accumulated that clearly demonstrates that the wide-scale use of these persistent, water-soluble chemicals is having widespread, chronic impacts on global diversity....There is urgent need to reduce the use of these chemicals....." (The Guardian; WIA Task Force report; Report conclusions in van der Sluijs et al 2015 )

Given these kinds of warnings, the White House Task Force will no doubt recommend some steps be taken. But will they be enough, or will they be half-measures that fall short of what is required? Here are benchmarks, key steps the government must take if it is serious about the pollinator crisis.

NRDC recommendations for EPA and USDA to take action:

  • Speed up the review of neonics. EPA's current leisurely timetable stretches to 2019. Given the rapidly accumulating scientific evidence against neonics, that's far too slow. Immediate intervention is needed.
  • Close the conditional registration loophole. Under current EPA rules, harmful pesticides can be put on the market with a "conditional registration" without being fully tested for toxicity. That's how many neonics got approved. The process has been abused and must be stopped. (see our Conditional Registration report)
  • EPA should cancel the use of neonics. An NRDC legal petition asks EPA to initiate cancellation proceedings for all neonicotinoid pesticide products, beginning with those for which safer alternatives are available. Systemic and persistent pesticides like the neonics pose too much risk to non-target and beneficial wildlife. (NRDC July 2014)
  • USDA should cancel pesticide seed treatments. The overuse of pesticides as seed treatments, including fungicides, and insecticides, is creating a chronic hazard to bees, butterflies, and other wildlife. Seed treatments should be cancelled, particularly where they have little or no economic benefit for growers.
  • EPA and USDA should track the production, sale, use, and environmental movement of pesticides. This would include data on bee deaths, waterway contamination and industry sales and usage of neonics, including uses to treat seeds.

An excellent review article published in the premiere journal "Science" (Feb 2015) by U.K. bee expert Dr. Dave Goulson and a team of scientists summarizes the complexity of the problem that bees face in the title of the article, "Bee declines driven by combined stress from parasites, pesticides, and lack of flowers." Bees and other beneficial insects and wildlife are exposed to a constant cocktail of agrochemicals that harm bees directly and indirectly. For example, the widespread use of herbicides applied as part of scorched earth industrial farming kills off the blooming wildflowers that bees rely on for food. Insecticides intended to kill pests that harm crops end up killing beneficial insects like bees that get caught in the cross-fire. Home and garden uses of pesticides poison flowers and kill lawn clover that feed bees. The combination of pesticides and parasites like deadly Varroa mites can stress and weaken bees.

Although the problem is big and complex, we must take effective steps now to fix the parts of the problem that we can fix now.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

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

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