Europe Takes Action To Protect Bees But Where Is the EPA?

Bees and honey combLast week the European Commission announced that it will ban three neonicotinoids–clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam–for a period of 2 years to protect bees whose decline has been linked to this pesticide family.  Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia have already imposed bans or suspensions for various pesticides of the neonicotonoid (neonic) family to protect bees.

In implementing the ban, the EC followed the precautionary principle but it was not for lack of fierce behind-the-scenes lobbying from pesticide manufacturers.  While many independent researches who studied the massive disappearance of bees called into question the pesticide manufacturers’ safety claims — the Independent says there are more than 30 separate studies linking neonics to declining bee numbers — it was not until the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) scientific report earlier this year that kicked things into gear. (See our discussion of recent studies here).

The EFSA identified “high acute risks” for bees exposed to dust drift and residues in nectar and/or pollen in various crops treated with neonics. Despite EFSA’s findings, certain EU nations, such as England, still voted to oppose the ban. In fact, the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health on March 15th failed to reach the proper majority for the ban, which pushed the issue to the Appeals Committee, which in turn returned an inconclusive opinion. Since that decision was inconclusive, it was up to the European Commission to render its opinion and it sided with protecting bees.

The ban goes into effect December 1, 2013.

Bees on this side of the pond fared worse under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which issued its own report the same week that Europe issued the neonic ban. The EPA report, while recognizing the serious effect that bee losses have on “meeting the pollination service demands for several commercial crops,” found no need to ban or suspend neonics in order to protect bees.

While the report recognized that “[a]cute and sublethal effects of pesticides on honey bees have been increasingly documented, and are a primary concern,” the risks posed by these chemicals only come after stressing other possible causes such as Varroa mites, multiple virus species, bacterial diseases, nutrition, and gut microbes. In a classic move to side-step critical decisions that may impact corporations, the report pushed the pesticide issue into the vague future of more tests and research, downplaying the mounting evidence which already exists and cries out for protective government action.

Beyond Pesticides, one of the non-profits that was part of the March 21, 2013 lawsuit which demanded that the EPA take action to protect bees, criticized the US report for not capturing the science connecting pesticides to adverse effects on bees. It also criticized the agency for failing to implement immediate, strong, and protective measures to protect pollinator health and focusing on short-term risk mitigation measures which “which do not question either the use of pesticides or recognize the availability and success of organic management practices.”

Neonics are widely used on a variety of crops. The list of crops includes corn, canola, cotton, sorghum, sugar beets, and soybeans, according to Elizabeth Grossman at Yale Environment 360. “They’re also used on the vast majority of fruit and vegetable crops, including apples, cherries, peaches, oranges, berries, leafy greens, tomatoes, and potatoes,” she writes, and “applied to cereal grains, rice, nuts, and wine grapes.” Grossman further notes that:

Charles Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, has estimated that neonicotinoids are used on approximately 75 percent of the acres devoted to these crops in the U.S. They are also widely used on landscaping plants and urban trees and in numerous home garden pest-control products — all in places frequented by bees, domesticated and wild.

Mere days after the publication of the US report, the EPA again faced criticism for approving the unconditional registration of the new insecticide, sulfoxaflor, which the agency classifies as highly toxic to honey bees, for use on vegetables, fruits, barley, canola, ornamentals, soybeans, wheat and other crops. According to Beyond Pesticides, the mode of action of sulfoxaflor is similar to that of neonicotinoid pesticides — it acts on the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) in insects — even though sulfoxaflor has not been classified as a neonicotinoid.

While neonics may not be the sole cause of the massive bee decline, that, according to a recent preliminary survey is continuing without abatement, and more studies are indeed required, many scientists and now the EC have nonetheless found that neonics pose an unacceptable risk to pollinators to warrant protective action.

“The new restrictions across Europe,” says Beyond Pesticide, “suggest that EPA consider moving beyond writing meeting reports on honey bee health and adopt actual restrictions of pesticides that peer-reviewed science has tied to pollinator decline nationwide.”