In April, when the European Union announced a ban on neonicotinoid insecticides, it was widely reported as a victory for bees and other pollinators. Following years of scientific research linking neonics with declining pollinator health, and a major report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), lawmakers moved to ban all outdoor use of the three most commonly used neonics. And just last week, a European court upheld the validity of an earlier ban on these insecticides.
Neonicotinoids are now the most widely used insecticides in the world. In large part this is because they can be used to coat seeds and, unlike most other insecticides, taken up by the growing plants. Although seed treatments are applied at lower volume than sprays, they are often used much more widely. And because of the extreme toxicity of neonicotinoids to pollinators and other beneficial insects that protect crops from pests, they have been shown to cause widespread harm even at those lower volumes.
Given all of this, the European ban is indeed a major victory for bees and the environment. But this victory has a catch. The ban did not cover all neonicotinoids, or other insecticides that have similar properties. Without further action, these alternatives, which could still threaten bees and the environment across the continent, may be used instead.
Getting in Through the Back Door
There are two main types of neonicotinoids, distinguished by characteristic chemical differences. One group includes the three banned insecticides, the other group includes thiacloprid and acetamiprid, which are still available for farmers to use on their fields.
This second group has generally been found to be less toxic to bees and other insects than the banned neonics. In fact, the E.U. stated that it is allowing continued use of acetamiprid because they found it to be “a low risk to bees.”
But allowing farmers to trade one insecticide for another probably won’t deliver substantial, lasting gains.
“Thiacloprid and acetamiprid are much less toxic than the banned neonics, but they have to be used at much higher doses to be effective. Hence bees are exposed to much more,” says Dave Goulson, a leading neonic researcher at the University of Sussex. “There is some evidence that their use is harmful to bees.”
The need to adjust the amount of insecticide so that it achieves efficacy against pests is a dilemma, because that also makes them more likely to harm other organisms. This dilemma was also noted by Penn State entomologist John Tooker, another scientist who has intensively studied the impacts of neonics. When asked about the prospect of several of the newer types of systemic insecticides (anthranilic diamides) that are receiving considerable attention, he noted that they may also need to be used at higher levels than neonicotinoids.
“This may be concerning because of the amount of material that may be left behind in soil,” he said. “As we have seen with neonic seed coatings, about 95 percent of the seed-applied material is not taken up by plants, but is left in soil where it can stay or be subject to leaching.”
It is also noteworthy that bees aren’t the only casualties. Many types of pollinators and other organisms—like ground beetles or minute pirate bugs which protect crops—have been shown to be harmed by neonicotinoids. These organisms also are important for food production, the environment, and biodiversity, even if they do not have quite the cachet that honeybees do.
While the neonics that have not been banned are less useful as seed treatments, Goulson notes that there are other, newer insecticides, like sulfoxaflor, that have properties very similar to neonics, and some could be used as seed treatments. Despite being listed as reduced-risk pesticides by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there is some evidence that they can harm beneficial insects and other organisms.
Because these insecticides are newer, we know much less about them then we do about neonics. Thiacloprid and acetamiprid, although several decades old, have also received less research attention than the banned neonicotinoids. But it is worth remembering that when neonic seed treatments were first introduced, they were thought to be less harmful to the environment than other insecticides because they allowed farmers to use less per plant than they did with sprays and soil treatments.
“Given the repeated failure of the regulatory process to filter out harmful products in the past, we should not have any confidence in it doing so now,” says Goulson.
The Need for a Larger Agricultural Shift
The fact is, all industrial agriculture relies heavily on insecticides precisely because they kill insects and other pests, and these powerful chemicals don’t discriminate between insects that ruin crops and those that we need and value. Many pests are related to helpful insects, mites, and spiders. For example, ladybird beetles (AKA ladybugs), widely known for controlling plant pests, are cousins of major pests like the Colorado potato beetle or corn rootworms. So devising insecticides that will control pest organisms while also sparing other biodiversity is a big challenge.
A related problem is that most crops are vulnerable to many kinds of pests, from moth caterpillars to beetles, aphids, and mites. And farmers often favor insecticides that are broadly effective against many different kinds of pests. Broad-spectrum poisons like nerve toxin organophosphates or pyrethroids remain the most widely used insecticides after neonicotinoids.
Instead of continuing to rely on an agriculture system that is crippled by internal contradictions, we need a fundamentally different approach to controlling insects and other pests. As noted by Penn State’s John Tooker, contrary to the advice from university entomologists, pesticide companies are not encouraging growers to adopt Integrated Pest Management (IPM) because they do not seem to find profit in it “[o]therwise they would be encouraging growers to adopt IPM, which is proven to steward insecticides, minimize environmental risk from insecticides, and improve profits by decreasing input costs.”
More fundamentally, those who grow crops using the principles of agroecology know that biological diversity inherently limits pest levels. Supporting it would mean shifting from policies, subsidies, and research that encourage industrial agriculture to those that encourage farming based on ecology.
One recent small step in the right direction is a new USDA Conservation Stewardship Program that would reward farmers who forgo insecticide seed treatments, but it provides only a small monetary incentive and runs for only one year. This program needs increased funding and time to meet the needs of farmers and prevent competition with other worthy conservation programs.
The upcoming farm bill is another opportunity to make these changes, but so far it appears to be headed in the opposite direction, with big proposed cuts to conservation programs. Although this House version was recently voted down, it will likely be back on the table in June and many congresspeople still want to slash funding for conservation programs.
Meanwhile, the EPA is evaluating how to address the problems posed by neonicotinoids. And while taking a page from the E.U.’s playbook would be a great start, it would have a greater impact by upping the ante and restricting all neonicotinoids and the other insecticides that might be used to replace them.