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How the Bees are Exposing Big Agribusiness



Is the government speeding up the process to save the bees? More scientific studies are popping up in regards to the relationship that pesticides have with the collapse of honey bee colonies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is leading a comprehensive re-evaluation of pesticides, particularly a relatively new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids.

Neonicotinoids are derived from their relation to nicotine and literally means “new nicotine-like insecticides”. They work entirely different from other pesticides that have been brought to the market.

Neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides that can be soaked into seeds before planting and therefore be taken up inside the plant through the root system and the xylem sap tissue. This could potentially make the entire plant toxic to predators as they ingest the tissue. Even if these chemicals are just sprayed onto the leaves, they eventually become part of the plant.

Systemic insecticides are highly soluble in water. It makes sense that plants easily absorb this class of pesticides given the fact that plants are 90% water. Neonicotinoids can easily wash off of plants and bioaccumulate in streams. They also persist in the soil longer than the older non-systemic pesticides and can seep into ground water.

In the summer of 2013, the EPA required new labeling for neonicotinoids to minimize exposure to bees and other pollinators. The labeling requires that these pesticides are not to be sprayed while pollinators are foraging or flowering is complete.

However, these pesticides can be sprayed if the beekeepers are notified within 48 hours of spraying. The hazard labels state that pollinators can be killed if they ingest the residues of pollen or nectar from foliar application or seed treatment, and is suggested that exposure to these insects be reduced.

So will this new labeling of minimizing surface spray at certain times be an effective solution to a systemic problem? According to the 2011 Summary of the Society of Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry (SETAC) Pellston Workshop  on Pesticide Risk Assessment for Pollinators, with the authors being from the U.S. EPA and Bayer CropScience, “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”. (page 12)  Also, “At this time, standard guideline methods are not available for laboratory-based chronic tests of bees.” (page 50)

To this date in the U.S. there is no standard testing for chronic exposure to bees from systemic pesticides.

In 2003, Bayer CropScience wanted to register Clothianidin, a systemic pesticide for canola and corn seed treatment. The memorandum included these statements, “The possibility of toxic chronic exposure to non-target pollinators through the translocation of Clothianidin residues in nectar and pollen has prompted EFED (Environmental Fate and Effects Division) to require field testing (141-5) that can help in evaluating this uncertainty. However, after further consideration the EFED would like to suggest that the registrant be given a conditional registration that is contingent on their conducting the chronic honeybee study that evaluates the sublethal effects of Clothianidin to the hive over time.”

This is the reality of how the government registers pesticides. Use first, question later.

The Bayer Company was required to submit this study in 1.5 years. The study was not completed until 2007 (4 years later) and was accepted by the EPA. However, in 2010 the EPA reevaluated  the study and found that it did not meet the guideline 850.3040 and another study is currently needed.

There have been several studies done on the toxicity that systemic pesticides have on the environment, including the effects on pollinators, rats, and ground water. Still, the EPA insists that additional studies are needed in both laboratory and field settings.

The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) workshop also admitted that bees could be at risk for exposure to systemic pesticides by ingesting guttation water. Guttation is drops of xylem sap that form on the edge of leaves that bees often drink as a source of water.

While these uncertainties still loom, agribusiness has added new uses to these systemic pesticides. They are applied to the seeds of food crops such as corn, beets, wheat, barley, and rye. They are also used as spray preparations on plant bulbs, in pet products, and lined on the grocery store shelves for consumer home and garden use.

The European Union placed a two year ban on neonicotinoids back in December of 2013. Listed on the U.S. EPA’s website is the report on The European Suspensions on Neonicotinoid Pesticides. The EPA states that they agree with the findings of the EFSA in regard to the uncertainty of the chronic risk of neonicotinoids. However, the EPA goes on to say that the EFSA does not address risk management, which the U.S. EPA considers a key component of pesticide registration.

In other words, at what cost can these uncertainties play in the role of our pollinators, mammals, humans, water supply, soil, and our food system? Make profits now and worry about the “uncertain” irreversible damage later?

This is exactly what the European Union is up against now. It is hard to take chemicals off the market once they have been introduced. The European Union may be forced to go back to using the older, more toxic chemicals on their crops.


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