Beekeepers and Scientists Urge A Ban On Systemic Pesticides

A field of Canola growing in Manhattan, Kansas.  Photo by Jeff Vanuga/NRC.

A field of Canola growing in Manhattan, Kansas. Photo by Jeff Vanuga/NRC.

When will the environmental regulators stop hesitating and start adequately regulating systemic pesticides, is the question on the minds of many beekeepers and independent scientists. Neonicotinoids, part of the systemic pesticide family, are of a particular concern because they kill sucking and chewing insects by disrupting their nervous system. Furthermore, “unlike older pesticides that evaporate or disperse shortly after application, neonicotinoids are systemic poisons. Applied to the soil or doused on seeds, neonicotinoid insecticides incorporate themselves into the plant’s tissues, turning the plant itself into a tiny poison factory emitting toxin from its roots, leaves, stems, pollen, and nectar.” And they persist in the soil for longer than the older generation pesticides. (See our discussions regarding systemic pesticides here and here).

Even small doses [of neonicotinoids] can kill. Recent research, carried out on honey bees in the lab, showed that these insecticides build up in the central nervous system of the insect, so that very small doses over a long time period can have a fatal effect. [The Independent]

And many say that the regulators in the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union knew about the risks posed by systemic pesticides on bees for a long time but still permitted products to be marketed and sold.

After years of pushing and prodding by non-governmental entities it appears that it is only now that regulators are coming around to openly discussing systemic pesticides-discussions that critics say should have happened years ago.

Earlier this year the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), a self-described non-profit, worldwide professional society, whose “mission is to support the development of principles and practices for protection, enhancement and management of sustainable environmental quality and ecosystem integrity,” held a meeting in Florida to discuss, among other things, the current condition of pollinators. One of the end-products of the workshops was the the publication of a controversial paper entitled, Pesticide Risk Assessment for Pollinators: Summary of a SETAC Pellston Workshop, edited by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a Bayer Cropscience scientist.

While the gathering of professionals to analyze the impact that pesticides have on the precipitous decline on honey bee populations could be considered an important step in the right direction, talk is not enough and a little too late say critics who condemn the SETAC meeting for taking a soft handed and tardy approach to what is seen as a global calamity. Dr. Henk Tennekes, a Dutch toxicologist who recently wrote, The Systemic Insecticide: A Disaster In the Making, told The Ecologist last year that “[a]n ecological collapse is already taking place before our eyes,” as neonicotinoids “are seriously affecting bird and insect life, and their continued use could result in an ‘environmental catastrophe.’” In his book, Dr. Tennekes argues that neonicotinoids “leach into groundwater and contaminate surface water and persist in soil and water chronically exposing aquatic and terrestrial organisms to these insecticides. So, what, in effect, is happening is that these insecticides are creating a toxic landscape, in which many beneficial organisms are killed off.”

Similarly, Tom Theobald, a Colorado beekeeper for over three decades and who has who has been outspoken on the issue of systemic pesticides, told GMO Journal that “the bee keeping industry has maybe a couple of years” before it collapses. He also indicated that the honey crop collected this year may be unprecedentedly low.

In response to the SETAC paper, Rosemary Mason, a doctor by training who has worked in the UK National Health Services for about 35 years, with the assistance and contributions from various European environmental groups, Dr. Tennekes, and Tom Theobald, wrote a paper, The Truth About the Neonicotinoid Insecticides, which denounces the industry and safety regulators for knowing about the impact of neonicotinoids on honeybees without adequately addressing it. Mason is also concerned about the impact of neonicotinoids and other pesticides on other animals and humans.

Mason writes that the industry and all the environmental protection agencies knew that “the systemic neonicotinoid pesticides are harmful to bees” and that they also knew that “the tests and protocols that had allowed registration of the systemic pesticides were not adapted to assess potential hazard and risk from this type of pesticide.” This fact was even admitted at the SETAC meeting. “Many who are familiar with pesticide risk assessment recognize that the methodology and testing scheme for foliar application products (where exposure may be primarily through surface contact) is not adapted to assess potential hazard and risk from systemic pesticides.” Despite the inadequate risk assessment, however, neonicotinoids were approved, marketed and sold.

And Mason is not alone in her criticism. Other independent scientists have been alarmed by the precipitous decline of insects and birds that they believe is attributed to neonicotinoids.

Dr. Tennekes explained that,

The acceptable limits [of systemic pesticides] are based mainly on short-term tests. If long-term studies were to be carried out, far lower concentrations may turn out to be hazardous. This explains why minute quantities of imidacloprid may induce bee decline in the long run.

James Frazier, Ph.D, a professor of entomology at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, who is concerned not only about the impact of systemic pesticides on bees but also about the impact of neonicotinoids at sublethal levels and in combination with other chemicals, stated earlier this year that “[a]mong the neonicotinoids, clothianidin is among those most toxic for honeybees; and this combined with its systemic movement in plants has produced a troubling mix of scientific results pointing to its potential risk for honeybees through current agricultural practices.”

With mounting evidence of the detrimental impact of systemic pesticides on bees, the SETAC participants admitted that “[t]he sub-lethal impacts of pesticides on honey bee learning, behavior, and physiology have been well documented in the scientific literature.” Despite this knowledge, however, the participants’ prescription of “[a]dditional work [...] in both laboratory and field test scenarios,” left many dissatisfied. While research is important, many beekeepers and scientist say that because systemic pesticides have such a detrimental impact on pollinators that a ban or, at a minimum, a cancellation action is necessary.

Dr. Tennekes believes that “[n]eonicotinoids act like chemical carcinogens, for which there are no safe levels of exposure. The message is that we must act quickly and ban these compounds, to avoid a catastrophe.”

In France, imidacloprid, a clothianidin predecessor, both systemic pesticides manufactured by Bayer CropScience, has been suspended for use on sunflower seeds since 1998 and on corn seeds since 2003. Germany, Italy and Slovenia banned clothianidin in 2008 along with other systemic pesticides. Clothianidin was denied registration in France.

Mason suggests in her paper that a more aggressive approach to dealing with systemic pesticides could not have emerged from the SETAC meeting because it was stacked with industry supporters and was “heavily sponsored by the pesticides industry.” Reflecting the frustration felt by many members of civil society, Mason decried the imbalance between independent researchers and researchers influenced by industry present at the meeting. She pointed out that of the participants, “three [were] from Bayer, two from Syngenta, two from BASF (one of whom had boasted on the net about BASF’s financial contribution), one from Monsanto and one from DuPont.” A representative of Dow AgroSciences was also present.

According to SETAC, “Pellston workshops are fully-funded 4-5 day meetings with completely invited membership (usually 40-50 participants) and all costs paid for by fundraising from sponsors (from government, business and academia).”

It appears that the only non-profit organization to make it to the meeting were The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, whose mission is to “protect wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat,” and the American Bird Conservancy, whose “mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas.”

On December 8, 2010, several environmental groups and bee keeping organizations wrote to the EPA, and citing “imminent hazards,” urged the agency to “issue a a stop use order immediately” for clothianidin. In a response dated February 18, 2011, the EPA declined and stated:

At this time, we are not aware of any data that reasonably demonstrates that bee colonies are subject to elevated losses due to chronic exposure to this pesticide. Based on EPA’s thorough review of the scientific information, EPA does not intend at this time to initiate suspension or cancellation actions against the registered uses of clothianidin.