If you follow environmental issues closely, you’re probably aware of the steady stream of alarming news about neonicotinoid insecticides, now the most widely used insecticides in the world. These chemicals have been strongly linked to the deaths of huge numbers of honeybees. Environmental groups and beekeepers have been pressing the Environmental Protection Agency to ban neonics, but as is so often the case, years can pass before enough evidence accumulates to allow the agency to ban toxic pesticides.
Two recent studies indicate that more than honeybees are endangered by neonicotinoids. A 2012 study by Japanese scientists concluded that these persistent, systemic insecticides “may be potent risks to human health.” (“Systemic” means the chemical is taken up inside the plants — you can’t wash it off or peel it away.) The researchers found that neonicotinoids act on mammalian brain cells in the same way as their namesake, nicotine. Nicotine exposure is a known risk factor for adverse effects on children, including sudden infant death syndrome, low birth weight and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
More news comes in a definitive, 100-page report, “Impact of the Nation’s Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds,” released in March 2013 by the American Bird Conservancy. The report points out that even a single seed treated with some neonicotinoids can kill the bird that eats it. The authors conclude that:
• Neonicotinoids are systemic products that are extremely persistent, and highly prone to runoff and groundwater infiltration.
• Neonics have contaminated surface water and groundwater at levels expected to harm aquatic food chains.
• Despite the accumulating red flags, regulators are allowing additional uses of these heavily applied yet controversial insecticides.
There is some good news, though. Several countries have already taken action to ban neonicotinoid insecticides. And, more important, organic production continues to grow steadily, demonstrating that food can be produced without resorting to poisons. Organic growers have proven crops can be grown in a better, more sustainable way. Every time you choose organic, you’re supporting organic growers and adding a little more incentive for other farmers to reject toxic agricultural chemicals. Yes, organic usually (but not always) costs a bit more. But better food and a healthier environment are worth it.
Numerous groups can provide you with action alerts and detailed background articles if you’re interested in more information about pesticide issues. Two of the leading organizations are the North American branch of Pesticide Action Network International, known as PANNA, and Beyond Pesticides, formerly the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides. PANNA, Beyond Pesticides and other groups are making a huge difference and deserve our support.