Just over a week ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a joint report intended to address the devastating losses occurring in bee colonies across the country. The report acknowledged the problem and then refused to take the next logical step. While the report admitted that “Acute and sublethal effects of pesticides on honey bees have been increasingly documented, and are a primary concern,” the agencies refuse to take any action to suspend the use of the pesticides in question: neonicotinoids (commonly referred to as “neonics”). This revealing report highlights a major problem with our regulatory agencies – eschewing precaution and instead favoring the market by approving chemicals until proven dangerous, by which time damage is irreversible.
How does EPA justify its risky decision to approve and register more of these toxic chemicals? The joint report claims that there is not enough evidence to implicate neonics as a significant factor in bee declines, and therefore a suspension is an overreaction. While we agree that other factors, such as parasites, pathogens, poor nutrition and habitat loss are also contributing to bee declines, the toxicity of pesticides to pollinating species is undeniable.
If you’ve read our blog, website, or action alerts in the past, you know that neonics are increasingly linked to bee losses across the globe. In addition to their extreme toxicity to pollinators, like honey bees, they have also been found to threaten birds and aquatic invertebrates. Neonics are extremely persistent in the environment, water-soluble, and mobile in soil – all of which give rise to long-term ecosystem impacts. Recent water quality tests have demonstrated that neonics are contaminating numerous water bodies and surface waters. These chemicals are also ubiquitous: in the U.S., neonics are used on the majority of corn, canola, cotton and sugar beet crops; about half of all soybeans; the majority of fruit and vegetable crops; as well as cereal grains, rice, nuts, and wine grapes.
While no one is suggesting that neonics are the only cause of honey bee declines, we are confident in our assertions that they are a primary contributing factor—and it’s a factor we could eliminate with regulatory action. In fact, just days before EPA and USDA released their report, the European Union voted to implement a 2-year ban on certain neonics. This decision came several months after the European Food Safety Authority released its own report identifying “high acute risk” to honey bees from uses of certain neonicotinoid chemicals.
Unfortunately, U.S. regulatory agencies have not responded with equal urgency and have not adopted precautionary measures. U.S. beekeepers, scientists, and public advocacy groups have been sounding the alarm over the harmful impacts of these chemicals for years, but their calls have largely been ignored. Unfortunately, the report does little to address these concerns.
The entire EPA-USDA report is based on a stakeholders meeting which took place last October. The report claims that, “there is broad consensus among all stakeholders that pesticide use should not affect honey bees in such a way…” But this claim is misleading at best. I attended the stakeholders meeting in October with a group of beekeepers and I can confidently report there is not “broad consensus” on the issue of pesticides. The “stakeholders” meeting was largely filled with representatives of pesticide manufacturers and industry. In fact, there were fewer than ten beekeepers present at the meeting, out of the nearly one hundred registered participants. It’s not “consensus” if only one point of view has been represented.
Within the last year, there have not only been nearly a dozen new peer-reviewed scientific reports published about adverse impacts of neonics on bees, but there have also been an overwhelming number of commercial beekeepers raising red flags and witnessing record high colony losses. Yet the report fails to incorporate any of this new discussion.
There is a silver lining, though. That is, there were some useful points that EPA/USDA made in the report and also on their public teleconference calls, including:
The report makes clear that the currently registered 100+ neonic products on the market were approved based on faulty assessments. Yet despite this fact, EPA says its review of neonics will still not conclude until at least 2018. Instead of following the lead of the EU in taking swift action to protect honey bees and other pollinators, the EPA is reportedly “working with pesticide and agricultural equipment manufacturers” to implement best management practices (BMPs), labeling changes and planting equipment updates.
While we were pleased to see these agencies make an effort to review the growing concerns with honey bees and other pollinators, this report falls far short of what was needed. It uses outdated science, fails to adequately address all of the voices that were at play during the October stakeholder meeting, and its recommendations are woefully inadequate to combat the devastating losses to our honey bee colonies.
Our regulatory agencies and policy makers must step up to the plate and take swift regulatory action, or there may not even be enough bees left to study 5 years from now.