(Beyond Pesticides, September 16, 2015) In a letter posted to the federal docket, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that it is opposed to U.S. Environmental Protection Agencyâs (EPA) recent proposal to restrict pesticides highly toxic to bees on sites where managed bees are present, saying the measure âhas not established the need for such a prohibition.â In its position, USDAÂ cites economic impacts to farmers and lack of a cost/benefit analysis. USDAâs critique of EPAâs proposal contrasts with a decision handed down last week by a federal court that ruled EPA should not ignore risk concerns for bees and rejected the registration of a pesticide known to be highly toxic to bees, highlighting a lack of collaboration and understanding between federal agencies in advancingÂ pollinator protection. USDA communicated its challenge to EPA despite the growing body of science on the hazards of neonicotinoid insecticides and findings in Europe that their restriction does not undermine crop productivity.
Last May,Â EPA announced a new proposalÂ to temporarily prohibit foliar applications of pesticides that are acutely toxic to bees during plant bloom and when managed bees are on site and under contract. The proposal received a mixed response, with many from beekeeping and environmental groups saying thatÂ the proposal does not address the persistentÂ systemic toxicity of these chemicals that remain in soil and plant surfaces for months and even years. USDA, in anÂ August 25, 2015 letter signedÂ by Sheryl Kunickis, director of USDA’s Office of Pest Management Policy, which often works with EPA on pesticide issues, the agency states that it does not agree with the complete prohibition of foliar applications and that EPA âhas not established the need to such a prohibition with any analyses of bee kill incidents for crops under contract pollination services.â Additionally, USDA goes on to state that EPA âhas not considered the economic impacts this proposal may have on the numerous specialty crop farmers and the rural economies they contribute to across the U.S.â The full letter can be read here.
Ironically, both USDA and EPA are co-chairs of the White House Pollinator Health Task Force established by President Obama in June 2014, which called on all federal agencies to find solutions to reverse pollinator decline. The task forceâs final report, released May 2015, outlines several components, such as a focus on increased pollinator habitat, public education and outreach, and further research into a range of environmental stressors, including systemic neonicotinoid pesticides. Although well-intentioned, the plan ultimately works at cross-purposes by encouraging habitat, but continuing to allow pesticides that contaminate landscapes.
USDA points to famersâ use of best management practices (BMPs) to mitigate harm to pollinators, even though BMPS are voluntary and not enforceable. The agency believes farmers have the right to create contracts with beekeepers that would allow the use of a pesticide with recognized risks and acceptable bee losses to the beekeeper. USDA believes without this, grower-beekeeper relations could deteriorate. The use of pesticides, according to the agency, is also critical inÂ response to invasive insect pests like the Asian citrus psyllid and the brown marmorated stink bug.
USDA has disagreed with EPA in the pastÂ on matters related toÂ pollinator protection. Earlier this year, USDA publicly disagreed with EPAâs findings that neonicotinoid coated seeds provideÂ little to no benefit to farmers. In a letter to EPA, USDA blasted EPA saying farmers should have the ability to use the tools available to manage pests, and that a risk assessment for all crops should have been conducted. At a Congressional hearing in May, USDA voiced its disapproval of U.S. Fish and Wildlifeâs decision to restrict the use of neonicotinoids on wildlife refuges. Interestingly, USDA itself has come under fire after reports surfaced that USDA scientists are being harassed and finding their research restricted or censored when it conflicts with agribusiness industry interests.
Bee-toxic pesticides like neonicotinoids have been identified as a main contributing factor to pollinator decline. These pesticides are highly toxic to honey bees, persist for long periods of time in soil and waterways and can contaminate pollen and nectar. A recent study from Harvard University finds that 73% of pollen samples and 72% of honey samples contained at least one neonicotinoid at levels which could result in sublethal harm. And a new European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) report confirms that foliar spraying of neonicotinoids, poses a risk to bees. Further, a report from the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) in the UK provides evidence of confirming the link between neonicotinoid pesticides and continually increasing honey bee colony losses on a landscape level. This 11-year study finds that mortality rates were 10 percent higher for bee colonies that had high levels of exposure to the neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, than for those with low field exposure, confirming a direct link between neonicotinoids and honey bee colony losses at a nationwide level. Visit âWhat the Science Showsâ
USDA believes that there is a lack of bee kill data to support EPAâs proposal, but bee decline has increased in the U.S. over the last several years. While there is little data on wild bees, national reports place managed hive losses at 42.1 percent for 2014/2015, representing the second highest loss to date. EPAâs proposal, while only a temporary protective measure for managed hives, can assist beekeepers in keeping their bees from direct harms from pesticide use. However, the proposal has several limitations including a heavy reliance on state recommended BMPs which are only voluntary, and a continued underestimation of the long-term systemic risks posed by bee-toxic pesticides.
Additionally, arguments that these bee-toxic pesticides are necessary for agriculture have not been proven. Preliminary reports out of the UK find that the country is poised to harvest higher than expected yields of canola in its first neonicotinoid-free growing season since the European moratorium on neonicotinoids went into place in 2013. According to the UKâs Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) Harvest Report, with 15% of canola harvested, yields are between 3.5 and 3.7 tons per hectare, higher than the normal farm average of 3.4.
The recent federal court ruling that rejected EPAâs registration of the systemic bee-toxic pesticide sulfoxaflor underscores the need to take meaningful action against these pesticides. The court concluded that EPA violated federal law and its own regulations when it approved sulfoxaflor without reliable studies regarding the impact that the insecticide would have on honey bee colonies. The court ruled EPAâs decision to register sulfoxaflor was based on flawed and limited data, and not supported by substantial evidence. Sulfoxaflor is a relatively new active ingredient, registered in 2013, whose mode of action is similar to that of neonicotinoid pesticides even though it has not been classified as a neonicotinoid, and is highly toxic to bees.
In light of the shortcomings of federal actionÂ to protect these beneficial creatures, it is left up to us to ensure that we provide safe havens for pollinators by creating pesticide-free habitat and educating others to do the same. Take action by calling on EPA to suspend neonicotinoids now. You can also declare your garden, yard, park or other space as pesticide-free and pollinator friendly. It does not matter how large or small your pledge is, as long as you contribute to the creation of safe pollinator habitat.Â Sign the pledge today! Need ideas on creating the perfect pollinator habitat? TheÂ Bee Protective Habitat GuideÂ can tell you which native plants are right for your region. For more information on what you can do, visit our BEE Protective page.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
Source: E & E Daily