'The Bees Can't Wait': White House Plan to Save Pollinators Falls Short, Say Experts

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'The Bees Can't Wait': White House Plan to Save Pollinators Falls Short, Say Experts

Pollinator Health Strategy fails to address pesticides as key driver of bee deaths

Experts say that in order for bees and pollinators to survive and thrive, President Obama must order an immediate ban on neonicotinoids. (Photo: CrashSunRay2013/cc/flickr)

Faced with the growing crisis of declining bee populations, the White House on Tuesday released its strategy for improving pollinator health. Almost immediately, experts decried the plan, saying it "misses the mark" by refusing to acknowledge the overwhelming role that pesticides play in driving bee deaths.

Under the strategy (pdf) put forth by the Pollinator Health Task Force, which falls under the leadership of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal government aims to:

  • Reduce honey bee colony losses to no more than 15% within 10 years, deemed "economically sustainable levels."
  • Increase the Eastern population of the monarch butterfly to 225 million butterflies and protect its annual North American migration.
  • "Restore or enhance 7 million acres of land" of pollinator habitat over the next 5 years through Federal actions and public-private partnerships.

To achieve these goals, the Task Force developed an action plan, which prioritizes the need to expand research on honeybees, native bees, butterflies and other pollinators, increase habitat acreage, increase outreach with other federal agencies, and expand public-private partnerships.

However, experts note that absent from the plan is any immediate action restricting the use of pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids, which studies have shown to be one of the leading causes of bee deaths. Nor does the plan outline restrictions for pesticide-coated seeds, which advocates say are "one of the largest uses of bee-harming pesticides."

"The plan focuses heavily on improving pollinator habitat, but is blind to the fact that new habitat will simply become contaminated by insecticides still heavily in use, ultimately harming pollinators," said Larissa Walker, pollinator campaign director at Center for Food Safety. "We can’t just plant more wild flowers near crop land and expect insecticides to stop being a problem."

And Lisa Archer, Food and Technology Program director with Friends of the Earth, said the strategy "misses the mark by not adequately addressing the pesticides as a key driver of unsustainable losses of bees and other pollinators essential to our food system."

"Our bees can’t wait for more reports and evaluations."
—Lori Ann Burd, Center for Biological Diversity

The report was mandated by a June 2014 presidential memorandum, which established the Task Force, charged the EPA with assessing the threat of certain pesticides, and called on federal agencies to limit their use of such chemicals in their operations. On April 2, the EPA announced it will "likely not be in a position to approve most applications for new uses of [neonicotinoids] until new bee data have been submitted and pollinator risk assessments are complete."

These actions, environmentalists say, are not enough in the face of rapidly declining population numbers. 

"The actions described in this report aren’t enough to save our pollinators as long as bee-killing neonicotinoids are being used on more than 100 million acres in this country," said Lori Ann Burd, director of the Environmental Health Program at the Center for Biological Diversity.

"Our bees can’t wait for more reports and evaluations," Burd continued. "For bees and pollinators to survive and thrive, President Obama needs to order an immediate ban on neonicotinoids. And the EPA needs to stop dodging its consultation obligations and fully assess the impacts of neonicotinoids under the Endangered Species Act."

Sustainable food and business groups have also voiced opposition to the continued use of these chemicals.

In January, more than 100 businesses including Clif Bar, Nature’s Path, Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farm urged the Obama administration to immediately suspend the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in order to "protect the nation’s food supply, environment and economy."

"The Obama administration must listen to the business community and growing body of science by taking immediate action to address the threats pollinators face from pesticides to protect our economy, food system and all of us," Bryan McGannon, deputy director of policy at the American Sustainable Business Council, said in a press statement.

Among the alternative recommendations being put forth, environmental groups are calling for: an immediate ban on all unnecessary uses of "systemic, persistent pesticides, including neonicotinoids;" regulations pertaining to the planting of pesticide-treated seeds; and increased investments in "green, fair, and cutting-edge alternatives pesticides that support a prosperous agricultural system."

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