Why President Obama’s Pollinator Strategy Won’t Solve Bee Crisis

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Why President Obama’s Pollinator Strategy Won’t Solve Bee Crisis

While the administration's attention to the crisis of declining populations of bees and butterflies is welcome, the Pollinator Health Task Force's action plan does not go nearly far enough in addressing the root causes of the threat facing these key pollinators. (Photo: Friends of the Earth)

Yesterday, the Obama administration released its long awaited National Pollinator Health Strategy, a requirement of a presidential memorandum released last June, which directed federal agencies to establish a Pollinator Health Task Force, develop a strategy to protect pollinators and charged the EPA with assessing the effects of pesticides, including neonicotinoids, on bees and other pollinators within 180 days. While it’s promising that the administration acknowledges the importance of protecting bees and other pollinators, the plan not only missed its 180 day release date, it also missed the mark in addressing one of the leading drivers of unsustainable bee losses—neonicotinoid insecticides.

A strong and growing body of science is telling us that neonicotinoids (neonics), the fastest growing class of pesticides in history and now the most widely used class of insecticides in the world, are a key contributor to the bee crisis and something we can fix now.

Last year, an international group of independent scientists released a meta analysis of 1,121 peer-reviewed studies which confirmed neonics aren’t just harming bees – they are harming entire ecosystems and organisms essential to food production, including soil microbes, butterflies, earthworms, reptiles, and birds, and they called for immediate regulatory action. The European Academies Science Advisory Council found there is more evidence that widespread use of neonicotinoids has severe effects on a range of organisms that provide ecosystem services like pollination and natural pest control, as well as on biodiversity. New Castle University recently found bees might actually be addicted to these pesticides and recommended reducing pesticide use “may be the only certain way” to halt bee and pollinator decline.

It’s clear these pesticides aren’t compatible with reversing unsustainable pollinator losses. This past year beekeepers lost 42 percent of their colonies, which is the second highest annual loss recorded to date. However, neonics are  widely used in agriculture — as a seed coating on over 140 crops —and for cosmetic use in landscapes and gardens. The pesticides are toxic to bees, long-lived, and systemic—meaning they move through the plant—and are in pollen. They have four strikes against them.

More than 4 million Americans signed petitions to the Obama administration demanding immediate restrictions on systemic neonicotinoid, thousands of calls were made from constituents, and letters were sent from hundreds of beekeepers, farmers, environmentalists, scientists, businesses, Senators and members of the House of Representatives. However, the Obama administration failed to listen.

The agency outlined it may consider restrictions on a broad range of foliar use products, but did not outline restrictions for pesticide coated seeds—one of the largest uses of bee-harming pesticides. Virtually all corn and a large percentage of soy, wheat and canola seeds planted in the U.S. are pre-treated with neonics and it is nearly impossible for farmers to source untreated seeds if they don’t want to use them. In the last 11 years, areas of the U.S. treated with pre-treated corn and soybean seeds has increased to nearly 80 percent, yet EPA’s own analysis and other research finds these seed treatments offer little benefit to farmers, don’t increase crop yields, and lead to widespread environmental and economic damage. The use of these treated seeds is not considered a pesticide use by EPA. To help bees, the agency must suspend neonics including use as seed coatings.

Although it received more than one million public comments urging for swift action, the agency will not complete its review until as late as 2017 and reinforced its moratorium on new or expanded uses of neonicotinoids while it evaluates the risks posed to pollinators. To get to the heart of the problem, the agency must address the more than 500 neonicotinoid products currently on the market for the more than 100 uses. EPA needs to step up and protect the environment by restricting neonicotinoids in the U.S. as the European Union, Canada and other cities, states and a growing segment of the business community have done.

While it is promising that the administration plans to assess wild bee population declines, it must take action on the pesticides impacting native bees. New science demonstrates the use of neonicotinoid treated seeds has negative effects on wild bees and their populations – and wild bees may be equally or more important to crop pollination as managed honey bees.

Despite public opposition from beekeepers, EPA is encouraging states and tribes to develop pollinator protection plans. We need a federal, unified plan, not a patchwork of state plans with varying levels of strength and effectiveness.

The plan addresses threats to monarch butterflies, but downplays the overuse of herbicides like Monsanto’s Roundup—a leading driver of monarch decline. Roundup (glyphosate) and pesticide intensive agriculture have wiped out milkweed, their primary habitat and food source. We must restrict glyphosate use, transition to sustainable agriculture practices and list monarchs as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act to ensure strong protections for these iconic creatures.

The pesticide industry has spent millions on a PR spin and lobbying campaign to protect their billions in profits—deflecting blame from their products’ contributions to bee declines and delaying critical actions to protect bees—and it appears to be paying off.

Recent reports indicate that USDA scientists are being harassed and their research related to neonicotinoids and glyphosate is being censored or suppressed. The possibility that the USDA is prioritizing the interests of the chemical industry over those of the American public is unacceptable.

If the Obama administration wants to be successful in protecting bees and other pollinators, it needs to take meaningful actions to suspend bee-toxic pesticides and ultimately adopt policies that support a sustainable food system that is not dependent on monoculture crops saturated in pesticides. It’s time for President Obama to direct his administration to incentivize organic agriculture practices that are better for bees, butterflies and for all of us.

Tiffany Finck-Haynes

Tiffany Finck-Haynes leads the Bee Action campaign for Friends of the Earth, the goal of which is to protect bees and other critical pollinators essential to sustainable food production and healthy ecosystems. Due to the campaign, over twenty retailers, including the two largest retailers in the world, have taken steps to eliminate pesticides from their stores, that are a leading driver in global bee declines. 

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