The home improvement chain Lowe’s announced on Thursday that over the next four years it will phase out products containing neonicotinoids — pesticides that have been linked to the massive decline in honeybees around the world in recent years. The previous day, the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) published a critical report on neonicotinoids, and questioned whether they have any role in sustainable agriculture. The Council analyzed a growing body of evidence and found that the widespread use of the pesticides “has severe effects on a range of organisms that provide ecosystem services like pollination and natural pest control, as well as on biodiversity.”
The fundamental problem facing policymakers in this area is one of inadequate information. In recent years, billions of bees have died from a condition known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), whose causes are not well understood. CCD has been present in the U.S. since 2006, when more than 25% of the 2.4 million honey bee colonies were lost. Most scientists believe there are several factors contributing to CCD, including exposure to neonicotinoids.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that the 10 million bee hives lost between 2006 and 2013 cost some $2 billion to farmers and beekeepers. Honeybees alone add over $15 billion annually to agriculture in the U.S., not to mention other pollinators such as butterflies, bats, birds, and different types of bees, whose numbers have also been mysteriously falling. This alarming trend, which is not abating, spurred President Obama to create a national Pollinator Health Task Force last June. Most recently, the EPA said on April 2 that it was unlikely to approve new or expanded uses of neonicotinoids while it evaluates the risks they may pose to honeybees.
Likewise, the effects of pesticides in the environment and food chain are not well understood. One reason is that new variants and applications are constantly being introduced. Farmers’ use of pesticides that coat seeds, done prophylactically despite evidence of limited benefits, has sharply risen but the EPA is not tracking it. Another reason for the lack of pertinent information is that sometimes there is a significant lag before harmful results appear. EASAC’s report criticized studies of neonicotinoids on bee health based on a single exposure to a given quantity of pesticide dust, because the effect of the chemicals is cumulative and irreversible. The authors’ conclusion was that repeated sublethal doses will eventually be deadly if a certain threshold is passed. Many more studies over a longer timeframe are needed to realize the extent of the problem.
Neonicotinoids are not the only controversial chemical sprays for agricultural use to make headlines recently. On March 21, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) labeled glyphosate “a probable or possible carcinogen.” It is a key ingredient of Monsanto’s very popular Roundup weedkiller, and is used in more than 750 different herbicide products. Monsanto and other producers of herbicides containing glyphosate strongly disagreed with the IARC’s label. The agribusiness giant criticized the methodology and noted that there are many factors that cause the type of cancer examined in the study, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
However, it’s not as if Roundup had a stellar environmental reputation prior to this. It is well-established that spraying the glyphosate herbicide kills milkweed, a critical plant for the survival of the imperiled monarch butterfly. Glyphosate has also been found in the organs and urine of cows, rabbits, and humans. And Roundup’s consistent use by farmers has also led to the evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds, driving the demand for more powerful treatments in greater quantities. Furthermore, a study published on March 24 in mBio, the American Society of Microbiology’s journal, found that commonly used herbicides including glyphosate can lead to development of antibiotic resistance in disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella (which can be fatal.) Paul Towers, Organizing and Media Director of Pesticide Action Network North America, told Blouin News “The U.S. Department of Agriculture and its state counterparts have been failing America’s farmers. They’ve failed to create policies and a plan that spur long-term ecological pest management and an investment in weed control that moves beyond the harmful and increasingly ineffective use of Monsanto’s Roundup.”
Still, the global demand for glyphosate is likely to grow alongside increasingly popular “no tillage” farming. The use of genetically engineered Roundup Ready crops along with glyphosate lowers the need to dig out weeds in fields. And the largest manufacturers are responding to herbicide resistance with integrated weed management systems that use glyphosate as one of several herbicides on a rotation. Since Europe has strict regulations on genetically modified crops, its demand for glyphosate will be outpaced by that of China and India, according to February report from Transparency Market Research. Asia Pacific is the largest as well as the fastest growing market, with an estimated 7% compound annual growth rate for glyphosate demand between 2012 and 2019.
But do farmers have better alternatives than these toxic chemical sprays?
Towers told Blouin News:
Alternative products, many already used by organic and sustainable farmers, are available across the country and globe. These products include varieties of vinegars, soaps and oils. However, most products, be they Roundup, or something safer, are a band-aid approach to weed management and should be seen as a last resort. Prevention is the key to true control. Nurturing healthy soils, providing proper watering, selecting resilient plant varieties, and then suppressing weeds through ground covers and mulches reduce the reliance on hazardous chemicals.
With the health of humans and pollinators at stake, authorities should err on the side of caution with these chemicals. Bans are entirely appropriate when more studies are needed and replacements are available.