Last week, I wrote about the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) denial of an emergency petition that sought, among other things, to suspend the registration of clothianidin on the basis that it posed an imminent hazard to bees.
While the EPA acknowledged widespread use of neonicotinoids, including clothianidin, pesticides that disrupt the pollinators’ nervous systems and have persistent affects in the environment, the EPA refused to acknowledge any significant connection to the recent bee declines or any significant adverse impact on honey production and the health of pollinators, birds and aquatic organisms exposed to it. The impact of continued steady decline of bees in large numbers is predicted to cause major agricultural losses as nearly a third of pollination is accomplished by honeybees.
Systemic pesticides are acutely toxic to all pollinator insects — a fact that even the EPA is unable to deny. Even as the agency acknowledges this toxicity, however, it doubles-down on the justifications or, as some critics see them, industry defenses, as to why clothianidin is not the culprit of the massive bee die offs.
Systemic pesticides these days are used to coat many seeds, especially corn — 90% of U.S. corn seeds are treated with neonicotinoids. The use of systemic pesticides chronologically coincides with the recent spike in on-going bee declines, and there are numerous studies that demonstrate a very strong likelihood that the pesticides are responsible for the massive bee die offs. Interestingly, the pesticide that the emergency petition asked the EPA to suspend has been sold for 9 years by Bayer with only conditional approval from the EPA — a loophole that allowed the sale of clothianidin without a full field safety study.
To be fair, the EPA and the company state that the pesticide is safe to bees when correctly applied. In the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, however, it is hard to be convinced.
I have previously discussed study after study which linked systemic pesticides with massive bee die offs, dubbed as colony collapse disorder (CCD), either directly or in combination with other pesticides or environmental factors. Just earlier this year, four new studies were published that demonstratively link systemic pesticides to the massive bee die offs. In May, the Pesticides Action Network (PANNA) released Honey Bees and Pesticides: State of the Science, a report collecting dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies from the last year that, in the words of the Center for Food Safety (CFS) press release, “documents that pesticides are a key factor in explaining honey bee declines, both directly and in tandem with two leading co-factors, pathogens and poor nutrition.”
Reactions to EPA’s inaction have been strong and unequivocal.
Peter Jenkins, an attorney with the CFS and the author of the petition, said in a press release that the “EPA has failed in its statutory responsibility to protect beekeeper livelihoods and the environment from an ‘imminent hazard.’” Moreover, “[t]he agency explicitly refused to consider the massive amount of supplemental information,” because the EPA decided to review only those petition materials submitted prior to May 4, 2012. Jenkins noted that additional information came to light as “bees started dying in large numbers this Spring during the April and May corn planting season.” CFS also stated in their press release that:
Recent studies, in the U.S. and in Europe, have shown that small amounts of neonicotinoids—both alone and in combination with other pesticides—can cause impaired communication, disorientation, decreased longevity, suppressed immunity and disruption of brood cycles in honeybees. Neonicotinoid treatment of corn seeds is thought to be one of the leading pathways for exposure.
Beyond Pesticides, one of the petitioners, wrote:
Neonicotinoids, including clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam are highly toxic to a range of insects, especially honey bees and other pollinators. They are particularly dangerous because, in addition to being acutely toxic in high doses, they also result in serious sublethal effects when insects are exposed to chronic low doses, as they are through pollen and water droplets laced with the chemical.
Beyond Pesticides also decried the EPA’s decision as “a blow to beekeepers and over one million citizen petition signatures worldwide.” The organization went further to note that “[t]his decision puts beekeepers, rural economies, and our food system at risk. EPA believes the bees are alright, but with hives still averaging losses over 30%, bees are crying out for help.”
The EPA’s decision prompted reactions from members of Congress. Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) wrote to the EPA stating that the “petitioners presented evidence and recent scientific studies to demonstrate that the use of clothianidin, …, is jeopardizing bee populations,” and urged the agency to respond to his questions about the EPA’s rejection of the citizens’ petition. See, if the EPA does nothing now, then it’s own registration review of clothianidin and thiamethoxam, another neonicotinoid, may not be finished until 2018. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) called on EPA to conduct an expedited review.
I spoke to Tom Theobald, a beekeeper who signed on as one of the petitioners and who has been voicing his concerns over systemic pesticides for years (See this LinkTV video for a recent interview of Mr. Theobald and Jay Feldman, Beyond Pesticides’ Executive Director, discussing systemic pesticides and bee decline). Mr. Theobald expressed his profound disappointed when, after the all the scientific evidence and beekeepers’ experiences were presented, the EPA still refused to do anything to protect the bees. “The EPA has a record of bad decisions,” he told me. One of his main concerns is that systemic pesticides accumulate with use and are persistent in the environment. Since this class of pesticides is “hostile to life for many years to come,” the EPA’s lack of action is most disconcerting, he told me. Another big concern for Mr. Theobald is the pesticide treadmill — more pesticides or more dangerous pesticides are used as the current weed and pest control technologies begin to fail.
“It’s not good what the EPA has done here,” he told me, frustration ringing in his voice. Mr. Theobald’s honey harvest this year is days rather than weeks.
The EPA opened a 60 day public comment period on the emergency petition and the EPA’s denial of the request to suspend. Comments must be received no later than September 24, 2012.