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Daily News Blog

21
Jul

Study Confirms Continued Bird Decline as EPA Fails to Restrict Neonicotinoid Insecticides

(Beyond Pesticides, July 21, 2023) A comprehensive and scathing report, “Neonicotinoid insecticides: Failing to come to grips with a predictable environmental disaster,” issued by American Bird Conservancy (ABC)in June, lays out the dire consequences of neonicotinoid (neonic) pesticides’ continued use. The report is an update of an earlier review from 2013, which warned of the risks to birds, stating starkly: “A single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird. Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with the oldest neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, can poison a bird. As little as 1/10th of a corn seed per day during egg-laying season is all that is needed to affect reproduction with any of the neonicotinoids registered to date.”

The story of neonic harm is one that has been repeated for generations with different pesticides. Pesticide manufacturers claim every new generation of their products is safer and more environmentally benign than the previous one. This is seldom true. There is ample evidence that pesticides pose threats to nearly every class of organism on Earth, from earthworms to elephants.

The neonicotinoids, introduced in the early 1990s, have been marketed as safe for vertebrates, non-bioaccumulative, and, because of their flexible application methods and long persistence in soils, requiring fewer applications than previous pesticide groups.

Neonics are now the most widely used insecticide globally in agriculture. The chemical group includes acetamiprid, imidacloprid, thiacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, as well as the minor compounds dinotefuran, nitenpyram and nithiazine. Neonics are often used to pretreat seeds before planting but are also sprayed on leaves and applied in what’s called “soil drenching.”

Because of neonics’ devastating harms to bees, the general public is likely now aware of the damage they cause to pollinators, but perhaps not so alert to their harms to birds. Despite the manufacturers’ assurances, residues left on seeds remain at levels that can harm nontarget insects and birds, many of which flock to agricultural fields expressly to eat seeds and insects. Thus, both seed-eating and insect-eating birds are often exposed to neonics. In fact, regardless of adult diet, it is estimated that 96% of birds feed insects to their young.

Neonics are useful because they are water soluble and thus can travel through all of a plant’s cells to kill plant predators. But this also means they are consumed not only by seed-eating birds but also by pollinating insects and hummingbirds, and they travel rapidly through aquatic environments. Even though manufacturers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assumed when the neonics were registered that their water solubility would prevent bioaccumulation, their residues have been found even in seabirds.

Further, researchers have found harmful reproductive effects at concentrations much lower than the thresholds set by regulators. The ABC authors write, “Based on recent studies, we have increasing concerns over reproductive and sub-lethal effects resulting from low exposures in farm fields. In particular, impacts on sperm quality have been seen at dose levels a fraction of our calculated MATC [an average of no-effect and low-effect levels]….Given that exposure is often season-long, this raises the specter of significant effects on a large number of bird species.”

The industry and the government also appear to rely on some assumptions about bird behavior that appear to be specious. According to the ABC authors, EPA believes birds develop “learned avoidance,” that is, birds will be repelled by the neonics and will not eat enough seeds or insects treated with neonics to make them sick. But as the authors also note, “Learned avoidance in laboratory settings has been found to be highly variable and dependant [sic] on test conditions,” and if symptoms occur after a delay, a bird will not connect the symptoms to the food and will not learn avoidance. Wild birds can also be exposed to neonics via their drinking water, dermal contact, or inhalation, exposure pathways they cannot control. Birds may also be incapacitated enough that they quit eating, fail to reproduce, fail to migrate, become paralyzed or experience seizures.

The European Union banned three neonics in flowering crops pollinated by honeybees in 2013 and in 2018 expanded the ban to all field crops (but not permanent greenhouses). By contrast, EPA has ignored the advice of its own scientists. According to the ABC authors, “As early as 1994, EPA scientists had warned that both acute and chronic aquatic risk triggers had been exceeded for both non-endangered and endangered species exposed to imidacloprid….In 2007, USEPA scientists also extended concerns to vertebrate wildlife citing potential risks from low chronic exposures [references omitted].”

In May 2019, EPA obliged a request from Syngenta, Valent, and Bayer to cancel the registrations of 12 out of 59 pesticide products containing clothianidin and thiamethoxam. The request derived from a settlement in December 2018 of a lawsuit brought by beekeepers and NGOs. EPA is also supposed to revisit the whole class of neonics to assess their effects on endangered species.

But in the meantime, perhaps the most egregious regulatory failure is that neonics used as seed coatings escape regulation, falling under the “Treated Item Exemption” of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which means the vast majority of applications of neonics are not even counted in usage estimates, according to the ABC authors. In 2017 a number of progressive organizations including the Center for Food Safety petitioned EPA to remove seed treatments from this exemption. EPA took five years to deny the petition, although it promised to “review labeling instructions for pesticides registered for seed treatments.” Earlier this year the groups sued EPA.

The federal government is also reducing the amount of data available to scientists and the public about pesticide use and spread. This year the U.S. Geological Survey slashed the amount of data it collects in its National Pesticide Use Map and is planning to release its report only every five years instead of yearly, starting in 2024. It has reduced the number of pesticides it tracks from 400 to 72, in part because the USGS buys data from a private company, Kynetec, which stopped including seed treatments in its usage statistics in 2015. The ABC authors add that the USGS also omits this category in its National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) maps, as the “seed coatings are too difficult to reliably source information on and, therefore, are not included in national pesticide-use estimates.”

Thus, no one really knows how much neonicotinoids are used on seeds. Claims that usage has declined reflect only that seed treatments are omitted from usage estimates. For example, a USGS graph of clothianidin usage in the ABC report shows that in 2014 more than 3.5 million pounds were used—the vast majority of it on corn—and the next year it was just over half a million pounds. This means only that 2015 was the first year seed treatments were dropped from usage estimates, not that less clothianidin was used. A paper published in 2015 in Environmental Science & Technology observes that, “It is remarkable that almost the entire area of the most widely grown crop in the U.S. (i.e., maize) is now treated with an insecticide, yet we have no public survey data reflecting this trend (USGS data are based on proprietary surveys and do not report the key metric of percent area treated).”

This kind of head-in-the-sand avoidance by regulators and agencies is dragging ecosystems into an abyss. Here’s what you can do to pull it back out:

  • If you use neonics on outdoor plants, stop immediately. Buy organic fruits, vegetables, and seeds. Beyond Pesticides has a directory of organic retailers of these items. There are alternatives to neonics, as detailed here. If you feed wild birds, the ABC has looked into the question of whether commercial bird seed for wild birds contains neonic residues, and in 2019 concluded there is little risk of exposure to birds by this route so far.
  • Write to your elected representatives in support of the Migratory Bird Protection Act. A sample letter is available from Beyond Pesticides. First introduced in 2020, the bill failed to reach a vote, and during the Trump administration the bill was altered drastically to absolve industry and agriculture from liability for bird kills. It was reintroduced in 2021 with restored protections to modify the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by banning the “unauthorized take or killing of migratory birds includ[ing] incidental take by commercial activities.” This would include birds killed by pesticides.
  • As Beyond Pesticides has previously urged, “Learn more about what you can do in your community to protect pollinators and other species impacted by pesticides, and by neonicotinoids, in particular, via the short video, ‘Seeds that Poison’. More broadly, organic solutions to pest management and land management are the best ways to protect bird and non-target wildlife populations….For more information on organic land management see the recent article in Pesticides and You titled ‘Thinking Holistically When Making Land Management Decisions.’”

Beyond Pesticides collaborates with people and local organizations to advance changes that eliminate petrochemicals and fertilizers. See the Tools for Change page and become an advocate for Parks for a Sustainable Future.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Neonicotinoid insecticides: Failing to come to grips with a predictable environmental disaster, American Bird Conservancy, June 2023, https://abcbirds.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/2023-Neonic-Report.pdf.

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