In this op-ed, AFE student Jeremy Edelman discusses why the United States should follow Europe’s lead and ban neonicotinoids.
Neonicotinoids are the most widely used class of insecticides in the United States. These chemicals are applied by a variety of users, including farmers, landscapers, homeowners, and golf course groundskeepers. And the United States ought to ban them.
There are currently four major neonicotinoid insecticides under review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—federal law requires that all pesticides undergo review every 15 years. Now is the perfect time for the EPA to review the research and make an informed decision not to approve neonicotinoids for use.
There is growing evidence that the recent shift toward neonicotinoids as the primary agricultural insecticide is a major cause of decline in both bee and bird populations (among other organisms). Neonicotinoids persist in the environment for a much longer time period than the chemicals they replaced. They are non-selective, meaning they are capable of eliminating a wide variety of pests, while simultaneously killing off countless beneficial insects. These toxic chemicals are also more soluble in water, posing danger for birds and insects that consume pollen and nectar (such as honeybees), or are exposed to runoff. A recent study in Science showed that imidacloprid, the most widely used neonicotinoid, causes songbird weight loss and delays in migration, which may be a contributing factor to the alarming 29 percent drop in North American bird populations in the past 50 years.
Why should we care about the loss of bees, birds, and other insects and animals? For one, we should value animals for their own sake. If that argument is too far-fetched, consider instead the economic cost of the population declines. Pollinators, along with insects that eat other insect pests, provide an estimated $8 billion per year in ecosystem services to American agriculture, which is significant compared to the approximately $133 billion of U.S. farm output. Honeybee colonies are integral in pollinating valuable nut and fruit crops. Our farmers need these beneficial insects and birds to ensure good crops and flowers. If Americans want to continue enjoying delicious foods like cherries, blueberries, and almonds, we must act to protect our pollinators.
Surely, pesticides serve an important function in our agricultural system. Without them, farms would be overrun with pests that damage and destroy our food supply. Yet it may surprise you that the economic benefits from neonicotinoid use can be negligible. Farmers in the United States generally use neonicotinoids in the form of seeds specially treated with active pesticide. It’s worth noting that Bayer, the chemical and seed giant that manufactures much of the neonicotinoid-treated seed, posted a video explaining how to reduce risks associated with toxic dust produced by the seeds. A recent study in Nature concluded that neonicotinoid-treated seeds provide minimal, if any, increased soybean yields or economic benefit to farmers. Not only are farmers paying a premium for ineffective and unnecessary seeds, but the seeds also present an environmental risk. Another option for farmers is to spray the chemical on the crops’ leaves; unfortunately, only about 20 percent of the sprayed chemical is absorbed, leaving 80 percent of the toxic chemical available for consumption by harmless animal life.
Some may argue that neonicotinoids are safer for farmers, farmworkers, and animals compared to the pesticides they replaced—mostly organophosphates and carbamates. Those chemicals do pose dangerous risks to mammals and insects, despite their shorter persistence in nature. Crucially, the article in Nature offers an alternative solution: Farmers can increase yield by focusing on management techniques, rather than pesticide application. Changing when the seeds are sown, the spacing between crop rows, and the number of seeds sown can be more impactful in increasing yield than treating seed. Employing integrated pest management practices, in which farmers only apply pesticides when it is economically beneficial, can aid in pest management as well. The Nature study focused on soybeans, a crucial commodity crop and prime pesticide user. The EPA should expand research to compare the economic benefits of pesticides and management techniques for other crops as well.
The EPA is charged with determining a level at which a chemical can be used with “a reasonable certainty of no harm.” In the case of neonicotinoids, there may be no such level. In 2018, Europe banned three of the four neonicotinoids. The United States should follow suit. Weighing the current evidence of weak economic justification against the acute risk to environmental health, the message is clear: the EPA should not approve the four major neonicotinoid chemicals. Rather, USDA should offer farmers technical assistance and encourage environmentally conscious, economically viable pest management techniques.
Sometimes it seems we debate the same issues forever. In 1970, Joni Mitchell sang, “Hey farmer, farmer / Put away that DDT now / Give me spots on my apples / But leave me the birds and the bees.” DDT was banned two years later, saving the bald eagle from extinction. Now it’s time to ban neonicotinoids and save countless animals, and ourselves.
Jeremy Edelman is a second-year AFE student at the Friedman School, focusing on creating a more sustainable and equitable food system, primarily through responsible and ethical sourcing of food. He is currently working at Boston Public Schools to incorporate more nutrient-dense and regionally grown foods into school meals. Jeremy loves dreaming of the backpacking life and having too many tabs of unread food, agriculture, and political articles on Chrome.