Spring has arrived. You can feel it in the air, the brighter sunlight slanting at a steeper angle, and the song of birds that have arrived from exotic winter homes. If you are not a night owl, you might wake up early enough to listen to the energy and excitement of the dawn chorus starting off the day.
I am lucky to live in a city with a lot of green space, with streamside parks only a mile away in either direction from my house, as the crow flies. So if I am not too ravenous to delay breakfast, a quick walk can take me to the site of the morning concert.
Figures of speech aside, the aesthetic value that birds add to our lives is only one reason why a new report from the American Bird Conservancy is disturbing. It provides substantial evidence that the most widely used insecticides, collectively called neonicotinoids, may be harming birds. Beside their aesthetic value, birds also eat pest insects that would otherwise devour crops and other plants, annoy us, and in some cases transmit diseases.
And this report comes after numerous scientific papers, some of which I discussed in earlier posts, (and here) have provided strong evidence that treatment of crop seeds with these insecticides is causing a lot of harm to bees, which are responsible (with other pollinators) for allowing the productive cultivation of many of our fruits, vegetables, and nut crops—about a third of our food supply. The scientific evidence of harm to bees and other beneficial insects continues to accumulate.
The European Union is seriously considering banning many uses of neonicotinoids, due to their threat to bees, and the U.S. EPA has said it will reconsider them.
But the new report documents what appears to be a lax history of risk assessment and decision making at EPA when it comes to these insecticides, so there is concern that the agency will not take appropriate measures. And as I have pointed out previously, EPA’s standard for protecting the environment (and those exposed on the farm) from pesticides, is lower than its protection of consumers from consumption of pesticide residues on food. So the agency is willing to accept some, often considerable, harm to the environment. The accumulating evidence strongly suggests that the risk from many of the uses of neonics should exceed EPA’s comfort zone.
Unfortunately, EPA is moving at a glacial pace in response to the threat from these insecticides. It has denied a year-old petition to suspend the use of the neonic, clothianidin, used to coat corn and other seed. And it has indicated that it will not complete its assessment of neonics for five more years. In response to this lack of urgency, several groups have filed suit against the agency to try to spur needed action.
The irony of this situation is that neonics are supposed to be acceptable substitutes for older insecticides that were very risky to people and the environment, including the carbamates, organophosphates—related to some types of nerve gas—and organochlorines like DDT. Some have argued that newer generations of pesticides have acceptably low risks. But that argument is not holding up for this group of insecticides, which have become nearly ubiquitous, and are relatively persistent in the environment and mobile in water. That means that they can find their way into streams, wetlands, and lakes where they may harm aquatic life as well as birds and bees.
Seed for major crops like corn, grown on over 90 million acres in the U.S., are now routinely coated with these systemic chemicals that travel through the plant and end up in pollen (and the edible parts of the crop) where they are picked up by pollinators. Or the treated seeds may be eaten by birds, where they may cause mortality or reproductive problems.
The heavy dependence of industrial farmers on these insecticides poses a dilemma for agencies like EPA. While they want to protect the environment, they can’t ignore possible harm (or, as they typically put it, loss of benefits) to farmers’ livelihoods.
A further irony is that there are better choices staring us in the face. If we had sensible agriculture policies and research institutions, EPA would probably not be facing this dilemma. As I have discussed in my last post and elsewhere, we know how to develop highly productive and profitable alternatives to monoculture agriculture that not only require fewer pesticides, but also fewer water-polluting synthetic fertilizers (see important research at Iowa State University, linked here, and another Iowa State study linked near the end of this post, as well as a longer writeup by my colleague Karen Stillerman). Other research, such as at the University of Minnesota, has come to similar conclusions. These alternative systems are based on the science of agroecology, and include longer crop rotations, the use of cover crops and perennial crops, and the better integration of livestock manure into our cropping systems.
We also understand many of the barriers to the widespread use of these methods. Social scientists have studied them carefully—as in this article comparing the bias toward genetic engineering and against agroecology, despite the strong scientific basis for the success of the latter. In a nutshell, these barriers consist of numerous incentives and subsidies to the current monoculture system, a research establishment that has put its impressive resources behind improving industrial agriculture rather agroecologically-based alternatives, the preference of transnational companies for technologies that involve products they can sell, rather than the free knowledge of agroecology, among others. This adds up to an impressive infrastructure, reinforced at several levels, that will be hard to dislodge.
But a good place to start, to use one more avian colloquialism, would be to take our heads out of the sand, and acknowledge the problems and real solutions rather than maintaining an ideological bias toward unsustainable agriculture. Another is to support UCS and other groups in our efforts to establish productive and sustainable agriculture based on the science of agroecology.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.