CLAIM: Banning neonicotinoids and using other products to be on the “safe side” will help honeybees.
REALITY: Bans will promote the use of alternative chemicals that may prove more dangerous than neonicotinoids.
It is a given that farmers will look for products to protect their crops from damaging pests, so the only question is what products best meet their needs while keeping risks to non-target species low. Despite much misleading and negative publicity, neonicotinoids strike a very good balance and have reduced risks associated with the pesticides they replaced.
The U.S. Agricultural Research Service notes on its website:
The neonicotinoids were developed in the mid-1990s in large part because they showed reduced toxicity to honey bees, compared with previously used organophosphate and carbamate insecticides.
Similarly, in its review of the issue, the Australian government concluded:
On the basis of information available to it, the APVMA [the Australian Pesticide and Veterinary Medicines Authority] is currently of the view that the introduction of the neonicotinoids has led to an overall reduction in the risks to the agricultural environment from the application of insecticides.
One of the key benefits of neonicotinoids is that, although they can be applied as a spray, much of their uses involve seed applications. This approach greatly reduces environmental exposures to non-target species, as the insecticide is absorbed into the plant and mostly affects those pests that would bore into or chew on the plant.
A group of studies, produced by the agricultural consultancy AgInfomatics for several agrochemical companies, interviewed farmers to estimate impacts of potential bans on neonicotinoids. According to one of these studies, seed applications represent about 98 percent of neonicotinoid uses for corn, soybean, wheat, cotton and sorghum crops. These neonicotinoid applications are necessary to control 17 groups of pests affecting these crops. Based on the farmer interviews, the study estimates that about 77 percent would find alternative chemicals, which would lead to greater environmental damage. Specifically, it reports that if farmers cannot use neonicotinoids, they will:
- Turn to other insecticides and increase the number of acres where they apply such chemicals by 185 percent.
- Replace the 4 million pounds of neonicotinoids they use for these crops now with 19 million pounds of non-neonicotinoids chemicals, a 116 percent increase of chemical use on a per-pound basis.
- Increase chemical applications to soil and direct foliar spraying of plants, increasing the relatively small current level of neonicotinoid spray applications of 4.5 million acres to spraying of 25 million acres of crops using replacement products.
The authors conclude:
The non-neonicotinoid scenario implies greater reliance on fewer and older modes of action, such as pyrethroids and organophosphates, which raises concerns about problems with insect resistance. Increased use of these two broader-spectrum insecticide classes is also more likely to have negative impacts on non target insects and organisms, including beneficial insects that farmers using IPM rely on to contribute to lower pest populations. Furthermore, the projected shift also removes other benefits of seed treatments compared to foliar treatments, such as reduced potential for spray drift and field runoff as well as fewer passes through fields.
Another AgInfomatics case study involved interviews with Florida citrus growers to address how neonicotinoids benefit these farms and their surrounding communities. Citrus growers’ very survival depends on having effective treatments for serious pests. In particular, they are plagued by a small insect called the Asian Citrus Psylid, which feeds on fruit trees and transmits a bacterial disease called Huanglongbing (HLB). If allowed to get out of control, HLB will undermine fruit productivity and eventually destroy citrus trees within a few years.
Such impacts are greatly minimized by the use of a number of pesticide products, key among them is neonicotinoids. These are applied in liquid form at the roots of young trees as they mature, helping to produce trees that are more disease resistant. The growers interviewed for the AgInfomatics study indicated that if they lose the ability to protect their crops using neonicotinoids, they may continue to harvest what they have until the trees are exhausted and then shut down their operations, ultimately leading to the Florida citrus industry’s demise.
It is simply too difficult to survive without such valuable pest control technologies like neonicotinoids. “Losing viable citrus production in Florida would have a ripple effect on jobs in harvesting, processing and packing plants; transportation; and multiple agricultural services, including equipment sales and consulting,” explain the researchers in this study. “The further decline or loss of Florida citrus would have dramatic effects on communities through¬out the citrus regions of Florida and would increase reliance on imported juice from other countries.”
In Europe, where neonicotinoids were banned starting in the 2014 planting season, farmers are already seeing serious crop damage and increased use of other chemicals that are likely more dangerous for bees. Rebecca Randall of the Genetic Literacy Project reports that damage to oilseed rape (canola) in England has increased because of a rise in beetle populations, whose larvae destroy plants by chewing on them. The British government eventually allowed emergency spraying of neonicotinoids, but much damage is done and the emergency use is temporary.
In 2014, farmers in the UK reported losses of 20 to 50 percent of their crops and the government and in Germany some farmers have completely pulled up their crops and replaced them. The only controls left that farmers have left are potentially more damaging to honeybees than neonicotinoids. Randall reports:
[C]anola farmers are spraying almost twice as much alternative chemicals from the class of pyrethroids, said Manuela Specht from the German oilseed trade group UFOP in Berlin. Last fall, UK farmer Peter Kendall said he sprayed his crop with pyrethroids three times last year before giving up, replanting and spraying again. This increased spraying with harsher chemicals may harm the honeybees, which the neonics ban intended to protect in the first place. A 2014 study by researchers at the University of London found that exposure to pyrethroids can reduce bee size. “There is a strong feeling among farmers that we are worse off and the environment is worse off,” said Kendall.
This situation illustrates the importance of considering the complete consequences of public policies. In this case, a shortsighted ban intended to protect the bees and their ability to pollinate crops will likely harm both honeybees and agricultural productivity in general.