NRDC and other Green leaders urge U.S. president to ban bee-killing insecticides - EPA moving too slowly

In a letter to the White House, CEOs of leading environmental groups representing millions of Americans urged President Obama to take strong and swift action against neonicotinoid and other systemic insecticides that are devastating honey bee and wild bee populations, threatening the nation's food supplies. What makes neonics so harmful to bees is that they are systemic - meaning they poison the whole treated plant including the nectar and pollen that bees eat - and they are persistent, lasting months or even years in the plant, soil, and waterways. Chronic exposure has been shown in laboratory studies to impair bee health, making it more difficult for the colony to breed, to fight of disease and pathogens, and to survive winter (see summary reports by Xerces Society and the report of the World Wide Task Force on Systemic Pesticides that reviewed over one thousand scientific articles). For these reasons, traditional best management practices for bee protection, such as not spraying during the day or on bloom, doesn't work for neonics.

(Photo of bee on basil flower by Mel Peffers)Bee on Basil Mel Peffers.jpg

In our letter to the White House, the eleven Green Groups - including NRDC, Earthjustice, Friends of the Earth and others - called on the president to immediately suspend neonicotinoid use, take steps to curb their adverse impacts and to have his administration close a legal loophole (called a conditional registration) which allows pesticides to be sold without a full battery of toxicity testing. The letter comes three weeks after over 100 businesses, many of which are members of the American Sustainable Business Council and the Green America Business Network, sent a similar plea to the president.

Citing "a significant loss" of bees and other pollinators, the president in June 2014 created an interagency Pollinator Health Task Force (I wrote about it here), co-chaired by the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Agriculture, and gave it 180 days to develop a National Pollinator Health Strategy. However, the task force missed its December deadline, and is now expected to release a strategy paper in the coming weeks.

Our letter charges that EPA is unable "to properly regulate insecticides impacting bees," and notes the "EPA announced it will not release a regulatory decision on neonicotinoids before 2016". The letter urges the president to speed up the review of neonicotinoids (often called neonics) and hasten the development of better tests for the insecticides' effect on bees, including looking at chronic toxicity and sub-lethal effects that impair bee colony health and function.

"If current rates of bee die-offs continue," the letter says, "it is unlikely that the beekeeping industry will survive EPA's delayed timeline, putting our agricultural industry and our food supply at serious risk."

Also, according to the letter, "EPA has allowed millions of acres of crop seeds treated with neonicotinoids to be planted annually with no registration of the pesticide-treated seeds and no enforcement against them in cases of misuse." Yet a recent EPA analysis found that neonicotinoid treatment on soybean seeds offers little or no economic benefit to soy producers.

Many seeds are being sold already pre-treated with neonic pesticides, making it nearly impossible for farmers to avoid using these pre-poisoned seeds. This is an especially terrible use of the pesticide since it occurs even in the absence of a pest pressure (much like giving livestock antibiotics from birth throughout life, even in the absence of any illness). At about 95 million acres annually, corn accounts for about one-quarter of all harvested land in the US, and virtually all that corn (92-95 percent) begins with a seed treated with a neonic (usually clothianidin). Over 90 percent of canola seeds planted in North America are neonic-treated, and approximately half the soybean seeds in the US are neonic-treated, despite an EPA report concluding that, "these seed treatments provide little or no overall benefits to soybean production in most situations". Other neonic-treated seeds include wheat, dry beans, potatoes, winter squash including pumpkins, grass, and sunflowers.

There has been some progress. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will phase out use of neonics on wildlife refuges by 2016, the European Union has a two-year ban on the most widely used neonics, and several states, cities, universities, retailers, and the Canadian province of Ontario have taken action against neonics.

This year the White House reported that, "The number of managed U.S. honey bee colonies dropped from 6 million colonies in 1947, to 4 million in 1970, 3 million in 1990, and just 2.5 million today" (June 2014). The crisis in bee deaths represents a potential crisis of food security - our ability to grow our own food will be threatened if bee declines continue at the current rate. Out of some 100 crop species responsible for providing 90% of the world's food supply, 71 are dependent on bee pollination. The estimated annual value of crops dependent on honey bee pollination is $15 billion in the United States alone, with another $9 billion from pollination by other species. In addition to fruit, vegetable, and seed crops that are pollinated by bees, bee-pollinated forage and hay crops, such as alfalfa and clover, also are used to feed the animals that supply meat and dairy products. The time to take meaningful action to reduce or eliminate our use of bee-toxic pesticides is now.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Health program

Join Us