(Beyond Pesticides, March 2, 2018) Neonicotinoids, the most widely used class of insecticides in the world, do pose risks to honey bees and wild pollinators, according to a comprehensive assessment released last week by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Encompassing an analysis of over 1,500 studies from academia, beekeeper associations, chemical companies, farmer groups, non-governmental organizations, and national regulators, EFSA’s risk assessment provides a definitive, independent conclusion that overall, continued use of these chemicals risks the long-term health of pollinator populations. After delaying a vote that would ban all outdoor uses of neonicotinoids in December in anticipation of EFSA’s assessment, the European Commission will revisit the issue as soon as March 22.
“The availability of such a substantial amount of data as well as the guidance has enabled us to produce very detailed conclusions,” said Jose Tarazona, PhD, head of EFSA’s Pesticides Unit in a press release. This is EFSA’s second comprehensive evaluation of the three most commonly used neonicotinoids: imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam. Earlier research finalized in 2013 led the European Union (EU) to ban use of the three neonicotinoids on agricultural flowering crops. The new assessment builds upon the initial review, and includes literature not only on honey bees, but also risks to wild pollinators, including bumblebees and solitary bees.
EFSA stresses that “overall” is the key word in their assessment. “There is variability in the conclusions, due to factors such as the bee species, the intended use of the pesticide and the route of exposure,” Dr. Tarazona said. “Some low risks have been identified, but overall the risk to the three types of bees we have assessed is confirmed.” Risk assessors looked at three broad routes of exposure: residues from pollen and nectar, dust drift during sowing or application of neonicotinoid-treated seeds, and water consumption. While, for instance, looking at canola production EFSA determined that chemical residues in nectar and pollen posed a low risk to honey bees, they were at the same time deemed a high risk for bumblebees, and residues via dust drift were likewise considered a high risk to honey bees. Thus, the researchers emphasize that their conclusion of risk is broad and all-encompassing.
That aspect is important, because throughout the over 11 year crisis, the major manufacturers of neonicotinoids, Bayer and Syngenta, as well as companies like Monsanto that coat their proprietary seeds in these chemicals, have worked hard to muddle and spin scientific conclusions around neonicotinoids. One study showing low risks to one pollinator does not negate high risks to another species, but the chemical industry seeks to downplay hazards, despite the preponderance of evidence linking bee decline to pesticides. Between now and the European Commission’s upcoming vote, these efforts are likely to increase in the media, as well as behind closed doors.
EFSA’s assessment should also be a wake-up call for U.S. regulators. In January 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its risk assessment documents on pollinator exposure to neonicotinoids, finding no significant risks despite the overwhelming scientific literature and despite identifying instances where bees could be put at risk.
The differences between EPA’s and EFSA’s conclusions highlight the problem with the U.S. system for registering and evaluating pesticides, but also points to an agency that is close to the companies it regulates. While EFSA considered a range of independent data for its assessments, EPA only considers information provided by pesticide manufacturers. The agency has the ability to review independent science or call in additional information from producers to ensure there are no adverse effects from a pesticide’s use, but often neglects to do so. The agency also ignored or minimized the effect of entire routes of exposure. EPA’s assessment did not consider risks from exposure via water consumption, and did not conduct an assessment on exposure from the dust drift off of treated seeds, instead citing best management practices to reduce dust. Rather than ban or even restrict neonicotinoids, EPA’s only concrete response has been to slightly alter the label language on neonicotinoid products. At present, the agency is preparing to reregister these insecticides for another 15 year period.
The Saving America’s Pollinator’s Act (SAPA), sponsored by U.S. Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Jim McGovern (D-MA), will suspend the use of neonicotinoids until EPA conducts a full scientific review and ensures that these chemicals will not harm pollinators. In the face of EPA inaction, urge your member of Congress to protect pollinators by joining as a cosponsor of SAPA. For more information on how you can act to protect pollinators, visit the Bee Protective webpage.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
Source: EFSA Press Release