By Chris Jadallah, CFJC Intern
Pollinator health has been a hot topic of discussion in recent years as major news outlets have featured honey bee population declines along with the impact their decline has on agriculture, economic prosperity, and food security. At least 90 commercially grown crops are dependent on honey bees and their pollination services (White House 2014). Honey bees contribute more than $15 billion to the US economy and a plethora of nutritious fruits, vegetables, and nuts to human diets (White House 2014). A number of other pollinators also play an important role in food production. Maintaining pollinator health ought to be a critical priority for researchers, policymakers, and consumers. Several of CFJC’s partner organizations released statements in response to the recently announced United States’ Pollinator Health Task Force’s “National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.”
In June of 2014, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum creating the Pollinator Health Task Force, co-chaired by the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Gina McCarthy. Creation of the task force signals a renewed commitment at the federal level to address the crisis facing bees and other pollinators. On May 19th, 2015, the task force released its national strategy seeking to reduce winter honey bee colony losses, increase the Eastern population of the monarch butterfly, and restore or enhance seven million acres of land for pollinators. The strategy largely focuses on improving the quality and quantity of overall acreage for pollinators on federally managed lands and through public-private sector partnerships. It also aims to increase funding for pollinator research and bring national awareness of the importance of pollinator conservation through education and outreach. These are important moves to protect and sustain pollinator health, but the strategy fails to seriously address a critical issue affecting pollinators: neonicotinoid pesticides.
The strategy notes that most pollinator species are susceptible to the toxic effects of applied insecticides and that the misuse and overuse of these pesticides leads to adverse ecological consequences. Despite this recognition, the report largely skirts the decisive action that many environmental groups have called for. It directs the EPA to implement new harmonized guidance for assessing pesticide risks to pollinators. On May 28, 2015, the EPA proposed a new rule that would prohibit application of certain pesticide products when crops are in bloom and honeybees are at work. This is a step in the right direction, but the rule still does not cover neonicotinoid seed treatments. Plants from treated seeds express traces of neonicotinoids in all of their adult parts, including the pollen that bees consume.
Researchers are starting to understand these pesticides’ effects on non-target insects like bees, and have already discovered strong links between neonicotinoid exposure and negative impacts on bee populations (Lu et al. 2014, Henry et al. 2014). The European Academies’ Science Advisory Council has concluded that there is an increasing body of evidence that the widespread prophylactic use of neonicotinoids has severe negative effects on non-target organisms like bees and that widespread use of neonicotinoids constrains the potential for restoring biodiversity in farmland. The studies have provided enough evidence linking neonicotinoids to pollinator declines that major governmental bodies such as the European Union have suspended the use of these chemicals as agricultural pesticides while scientists continue to assess their impact on the honey bee (Lawrence et al. 2014).
Two CFJC partner organizations, the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) and Food and Water Watch, criticized the strategy for not taking strong action on neonicotinoid pesticide use. PAN organizer Lex Horan states, “A lopsided federal policy that takes decisive action on habitat, mites, and other issues, while remaining stuck on pesticides, will not turn the tide on bee declines.” Food and Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter went further to say that “voluntary management practices, insignificant label changes, and weak state pollinator plans will not do enough to reverse the decline of pollinator populations. The White House must step up and suspend the use of neonicotinoids and other systemic insecticides that are linked to bee declines, which is a serious threat to biodiversity and our food system.”
As pollinators, bees play important roles in food production. Threats to their numbers- including habitat loss, parasites, diseases, and pesticides- also threaten agriculture vitality and the economic growth and food security associated with it. Although the Pollinator Health Task Force’s strategy to combat these population declines addresses many important aspects of the larger problem, it largely fails to take strong action on the threat posed by neonicotinoid pesticides.
Ecosystem Services, Agriculture, and Neonicotinoids. Rep. no. 26. European Academies Science Advisory Council, Apr. 2015. Web. 1 June 2015.
Henry, Mickael, Maxime Beguin, Orianne Rollin, Jean Odoux, Pierrick Aupinel, Jean Aptel, Sylvie Tchamitchian, and Axel Decourtye. “A Common Pesticide Decreases Foraging Success and Survival.” Science 336 (2012): 348-50. ScienceMag. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.
Lawrence, Timothy, and Walter Sheppard. “Neonicotonoid Pesticides.” Washington State University Cooperative Extension, Nov. 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
Lu, Chensheng, Kenneth Warchol, and Richard Callahan. “Sub-lethal Exposure to Neonicotinoids Impaired Honey Bees Winterization before Proceeding to Colony Collapse Disorder.” Bulletin of Insectology 67.1 (130): 125-30. BIOSIS. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
The White House. Office of the Press Secretary. The Economic Challenge Posed by Declining Pollinator Populations. Whitehouse.gov. N.p., 20 June 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.