(Beyond Pesticides, January 18, 2018) Research published in early January 2018 has shown that — despite a partial ban on neonicotinoid insecticides instituted in 2014 — 25% of British honey is still contaminated with residue of these “potent, bee-killing” pesticides. The partial ban, which extended to flowering crops, such as oilseed rape (from which canola oil is made), was instituted by the European Union (EU) in response to evidence of serious threats to bee populations. Samples for this study came from beekeepers and were each from a single location.
After the partial ban went into effect, scientists had seen some reduction in the contamination rate of neonicotinoids in honey, from greater than 50% prior to the ban. This study demonstrates that these powerful pesticides nevertheless remain common in agricultural areas, posing serious threats to bees (and other pollinators). This discovery is likely to accelerate pressure on the EU to ban all outdoor use of neonicotinoids, with a vote coming perhaps as soon as in the next few months. “While the frequency of neonicotinoid contaminated samples fell once the EU ban was in place, our data suggest that these pesticides remain prevalent in the farming environment,” said Ben Woodcock, of the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
Neonicotinoids are insecticides that affect the central nervous system of insects, resulting in paralysis and death; thus, they are sometimes called “neurotoxins”. There is major concern about their role in pollinator decline. Neonicotinoids can be persistent in the environment, and when used as seed treatments, translocate to residues in pollen and nectar of treated plants. Despite these risks, they have come into extremely wide usage and therefore, have put pollinators at considerable risk.
Just a few months prior to the research on British honey, a different research project, published by the journal Science in October 2017, looked at pesticide residue in honey from every continent except Antarctica. It concluded that these chemicals, ubiquitous in the honey samples collected, represent a major risk to bees (and pollinators broadly). Because bees forage widely in their pursuit of nectar and pollen, they are regarded as excellent barometers of the degree of pesticide pollution in their range landscapes.
The study began as a “citizen science” project when researchers at the Botanical Garden of Neuchâtel, Switzerland asked for honey donations from around the world between 2012 and 2016. They received and sampled nearly 200 for the five main types of neonicotinoids, and found that 75% of the samples contained neonicotinoid residue. Those samples yielded an 86% contamination rate in North American samples (the highest rate among the represented regions), followed by 80% for Asia, 79% for Europe, and 57% for South America. Nearly half of the samples contained more than one of the insecticide compounds.
The research findings suggest that the loss of bees and impairment of bee health is strongly “associated with intensive land use, which exposes bees to pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids. The latter may harm bees directly and/or exacerbate threats from other chemicals, imported parasites and diseases, or habitat loss. . . . Most honeys sampled from around the world between 2012 and 2016 contain neonicotinoids at levels known to be neuroactive in bees.”
Professor Edward Mitchell of the University of Neuchâtel noted, “The striking finding is that 75% of our samples had measurable quantities. That was surprising to us, since our coverage included many remote areas, including oceanic islands.” He added, “If you look at the minimum concentration for which a significant negative impact on bees has been found, then 48% of our samples exceed this level.” Researchers indicated that those impacts on bees include impaired behavior, learning, and ultimately, success of colonies.
Dave Goulson, PhD, professor at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom (who was not part of the University of Neuchâtel study), said: “Entire landscapes all over the world are now permeated with highly potent neurotoxins, undoubtedly contributing to the global collapse of biodiversity. It is hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu: Rachel Carson was saying the same things more than 50 years ago, but we seem not to have learned any lessons. It is high time that we developed a global regulatory system for pesticides, to prevent such catastrophes being repeated over and over again.” Renowned neonicotinoid researcher Jean-Marc Bonmatin, PhD, explained to The Guardian, “The use of these pesticides runs contrary to environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. It provides no real benefit to farmers, decreases soil quality, hurts biodiversity and contaminates water, air and food. There is no longer any reason to continue down this path of destruction.”
Beyond Pesticides has been sounding the alarm on pesticide contamination for years, calling for more comprehensive testing and more protective regulation. Clearly, as seen in the cited studies on honey, halfway measures, such as a partial ban on a toxic pesticide, are not sufficient to get such pesticides out of the environment, the foods of pollinators, and the agricultural products that humans consume. (By contrast with the British partial ban and the absence of significant regulation in the United States, France has put in place a neonicotinoid ban that goes into effect in 2018 and is stronger than the current EU restrictions.) The case of the neonicotinoids exemplifies two critical problems with current U.S. registration procedures and risk assessment methods for pesticides: the reliance on industry-funded science that contradicts peer-reviewed studies and the insufficiency of current risk assessment procedures to account for sublethal effects of pesticides.
Intense concern in the past decade about impacts of pesticides on bee (and pollinator) populations has also focused on residues in human foods. The pervasive “greenwashed” labeling that appears on many products — including honey — uses words such as “natural” and “pure” to create the impression that there’s nothing “nasty” in the product. Yet, there are often contaminants in food products.
In 2016, Beyond Pesticides and the Organic Consumers Association filed suit against Sioux Honey Association for the deceptive and misleading labeling of its Sue Bee and Aunt Sue’s honey brands — despite the knowledge that the bees producing their honey forage in fields or landscapes treated with toxic chemicals. The suit followed news that Sue Bee honey products labeled “100% Pure” and “Natural” tested positive for glyphosate residue. (Glyphosate, a known endocrine disruptor and, according to the World Health Organization, a probable human carcinogen, is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup® herbicide.)
Beyond Pesticides advocates that organic agriculture, which focuses on safe, effective alternatives to chemical pest control, is a huge part of the solution. The best way to avoid pesticide residues in food and beverages is to buy organic and support organic agriculture. Beyond Pesticides’ database, Eating with a Conscience (EWAC), provides information on the pesticides that may be present in the food we eat, and why food labeled “organic” is the wise choice. EWAC also includes information on the impacts of chemically intensive agriculture on farmworkers, water, and our threatened pollinators. In addition, local advocacy can change practices: more and more towns and cities are enacting local ordinances to limit or ban use of neonicotinoid pesticides, and in some cases, to boost habitat and/or adopt organic land care approaches to support pollinator health.
Source: The Guardian