Germany, France and Italy have banned a class of potent pesticides called “neonicotinoids.” This class of pesticides includes imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam. Evidence linking these neonicotinoid pesticides to the honeybee decline known as colony collapse disorder has been mounting. Now, new research suggests residues could be harmful to humans, yet these poisons are still in widespread use across the United States.
Named for their chemical structure, which is similar to that of nicotine, neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides, meaning they’re in every part of a plant. Generally, seeds are coated in the pesticide before they’re planted, and, as a plant develops, the chemicals move into the leaves, roots, pollen, nectar, and even the food products eventually made from the crop. If insects feed on any part of the plant — even water droplets released by plant leaves — the pesticide, a neurotoxin, kills them. In the case of honeybees, if the amount of pesticide ingested isn’t strong enough to kill them, it can still cause impaired communication, disorientation, decreased life span, suppressed immunity and disruption of brood cycles.
Not only are neonicotinoid pesticides systemic, they’re also extraordinarily persistent. Research shows these pesticides can persist in the soil for more than a decade! Neonicotinoids are widely used on corn, soy, canola, sugar beets, wheat, ornamentals and more. Some sources note that it’s difficult for farmers to find corn seed that hasn’t been treated with one of these insecticides. As industrial farmers use these potent pesticides year after year on the same land, it’s creating an ever more toxic environment.
Neonicotinoid pesticides, produced by chemical giant Bayer, should have never been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). One of the most commonly used neonicotinoids, clothianidin, went on the market in 2003 after being granted a “conditional registration” from the EPA. This is code for saying the EPA will allow the pesticide’s use even though there’s not enough evidence to show that it passes safety standards — a practice that, shockingly, occurs for about 70 percent of the active ingredients in pesticides that go through the review process. Leaked memos written by EPA scientists stated that what studies Bayer did submit were poorly run, and the scientists openly admitted that neonicotinoids pose harm to honeybees.
A new study from Harvard University scientists concludes that neonicotinoids are likely the primary cause of colony collapse disorder. According to lead researcher Chensheng Lu, “It apparently doesn’t take much of the pesticide to affect the bees. Our experiment included pesticide amounts below what is normally present in the environment.”
Numerous studies have shown that these pesticides are killing bees and many other non-target insects, and research now suggests danger for us, too. A 2004 German study tested samples of fruits and vegetables and found that 12 percent contained neonicotinoid residues. A 2012 Japanese study was the first to show that neonicotinoids affect brain development in mammals. The researchers warn that “detailed investigation of the neonicotinoids is needed to protect the health of human children.”
A lot is at stake here. Bayer will lose billions if the EPA does the right thing and bans neonicotinoids. However, bee populations are vital to agriculture and farmers will lose billions if honeybee populations continue to plummet. And then there are our children …
Beekeepers have teamed with the Pesticide Action Network to petition the EPA to suspend registration of neonicotinoids. Please join us in demanding that the EPA finally put a stop to the use of these potent chemicals in the United States. Go to Beekeepers Ask EPA to Remove Pesticide Linked to Colony Collapse Disorder, Citing Leaked Agency Memo to learn more about the issues surrounding neonicotinoid pesticides. It’s time for the government to stand up and protect us, not the chemical companies.
Shelley Stonebrook is MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine’s main gardening editor. She’s passionate about growing healthy, sustainable food and also runs Stonegrass Farms Soap Co. in her spare time. Follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.