Neonicotinoid Pesticides

A closer look into neonics and their impacts on pollinators

Advertisements

Neonicotinoids – What Are They?

 Neonicotinoids are a type of systemic pesticide that have been increasingly applied to farms, gardens, and public lands like school yards. Neonicotinoids now make up about 25% of the pesticide market, making them the most common insecticide currently used,[1] and are licensed in over 120 countries.[2]A systemic pesticide means that the pesticide is absorbed into the plant’s whole physical infrastructure. Systemic pesticides differ from topical pesticides in that they do not only perform on the leaves and/or surfaces they are directly applied to; instead, with systemic pesticides, the effects are manifested throughout the whole physical infrastructure of the plant. This ‘systemic’ absorption and manifestation has, in many ways, revolutionized agricultural practices around the world. The success of neonics in part depends on their ability to be so effective against pests that have developed a resistance to other insecticides. [3] Another attractive feature of neonics is that the application of a systemic pesticide can require much less precision (as the chemicals can be absorbed into the plant infrastructure via methods like seed soaking), and there are many more ways neonics can be applied. [4] Moreover, many consumers and farmers alike are able to purchase plants or seeds that have already been treated by neonics. Often, seeds are soaked in the pesticide agent and the effects spread through the plant as it grows. This convenience has had a huge impact on the modern agricultural world with the most commonly used pesticide in the United States being neonics, with annual crop application estimations hovering around 150 million acres.[5]. Using neonics is extremely convenient and cost effective, especially in the era of monocultures, which are particularly susceptible to pest infestation and spreading.

Along with the benefits of neonicotinoids come questions about the impact on the environment surrounding their application. For example, the neonics often spread into surrounding soil[6]. Moreover, since neonics affect the entire apparatus of the plant, many scientists, beekeepers, and researchers have questioned where the effects stop; neonicotinoids are manifested in the whole apparatus of the plant including the blooming mechanisms. So, it is questioned, are these effects passed onto pollinators that collect the pollen and nectar of plants to which neonics have been applied? Moreover, given the duration that neonics are effective, do the chemicals stay in the soil and systems of pollinators for the same amount of time that they are retained in plants? Moreover, to what extent are the concentrations regulated in the consumer market?

While the effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators is considered inconclusive, evidence does suggest that there is at least some level of harm caused to pollinators by the use of neonicotinoids. The effects can be anything from chronic to lethal, depending on the dosage. Even long durations of nonlethal exposure can have detrimental effects on the health of pollinators.[7] The problem extends beyond simply bees dropping dead at their hives; sublethal effects include disrupted digestive systems, impaired navigational apparatuses, nerve and neurological damage, and immune deficiencies.[8]The disrupted digestive systems and immune deficiencies leave bees and other pollinators unarmed against diseases and predators like the Varroa mite to which they are normally immune. Impaired navigation confuses the bees and they often cannot find their way back to their hive.[9][10]

So, how are the effects of pesticides on pollinators tested, measured, and evaluated? In order to register the use of these neonic products for use in the United States, the EPA is responsible for conducting an evaluation to determine the potential harm (and extent of the potential harm). The EPA uses a three-tiered system that is used for detecting the toxicity of pesticides.[11] The EPA tests for lethal dosages and effects of neonics. Though there is not conclusive evidence of the exact cause of CCD or the extent of harm of the use of neonics, there is a consensus among scientists that the potential for harm to pollinators from the use of neonics ought to be evaluated further for two main reasons: First, the application to the plant or seed targets the infrastructure of the plant and becomes absorbed. Because of this, traces of the pesticide are produced into the pollen, nectar, and general blooming apparatus of the flower or plant.[12], [13] Bees are especially susceptible to these chemicals when they are pollinating. The second reason is that these chemicals attack the system of bees as well. The effect is more than a simple deterrent, but is not regarded as such by many chemical companies, or even the EPA, because of the lack of detectable immediate lethal effects. Moreover, there is inconclusive evidence in terms of the immediate or delayed effects, as well as those that are lethal and sublethal. Instead, the effects are sublethal and often take days to manifest, through attacking of the nerves, digestive system, and navigational abilities.[14] These effects are thought to be significant contributing factors as to why the bees are not found dead near the hives, but instead lost on their way home.[15] The EPA continues to register these products essentially because the conclusive evidence just isn’t there that neonics are the cause of these rampant bee deaths. There is a lot of information missing as to the role that neonics play in contributing to CCD and the decline of pollinators.

In the face of this uncertainty of the cause of CCD and whether or not there is a connection to neonics, how should policymakers decide whether something ought to be regulated? In the face of inconclusive evidence like that surrounding neonics and CCD, are there ways to evaluate policymaking? I argue that there are ways, and that the decision regarding whether or not to apply regulatory policymaking in a given situation ought to be decided via application of an ethical risk assessment.

Based on the potential affects of neonics outlined about (such as spreading in the soil and also becoming absorbed by any pollinator that feeds from the pollen), the use of neonics may affect other areas of the environment, too. Moreover, right now we are spraying first and seeing how the effects play out. In fact, an important point is that we do not need to be operating with such a high burden of proof that neonics are not harmful. The burden of proof should rest with the chemical companies to prove the pesticides are not harmful. Moreover, holding such a high standard of proof as to pesticide harm is not consistent with a commitment to moral or ethical behavior. This high standard should not be a requirement, nor the evidentiary threshold that shapes testing frameworks like the one used by the EPA to evaluate neonics. Instead, I argue that in the face of uncertainty, we should apply an ethical risk assessment to determine whether or not regulation is justified.

Stay tuned for my next post: neonics & policy – coming Wednesday, March 16

Sources Cited
[1] van der Sluijs, Jeroen P., Noa Simon-Delso, Dave Goulson, Laura Maxim, Jean-Marc Bonmatin, and Luc P. Belzunces. "Neonicotinoids, Bee Disorders and the Sustainability of Pollinator Services." Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 5, no. 3-4 (September 2013): 293-305.
[2] Goulson, Dave. "REVIEW: An overview of the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoid insecticides." Journal of Applied Ecology 50, no. 4 (June 13, 2013): 977-87.
[3] Elbert, Alfred et. al. "Applied aspects of neonicotinoid uses in crop protection." Pest Management Science 64, no. 11: 1099-105.
[4] Elbert, Alfred et. al. "Applied aspects of neonicotinoid uses in crop protection." Pest Management Science 64, no. 11: 1099-105.
[5] LaJeunesse, Sara. "Rapid increase in neonicotinoid insecticides driven by seed treatments." Penn State News, April 2, 2015. http://news.psu.edu/story/351027/2015/04/02/research/rapid-increase-neonicotinoid-insecticides-driven-seed-treatments.
[6] Goulson, Dave. "REVIEW: An overview of the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoid insecticides." Journal of Applied Ecology 50, no. 4 (June 13, 2013): 977-87.
[7] Blacquiere, Tjeerd, Guy Smagghe, Cornelis van Gestel, and Veerle Mommaerts. "Neonicotinoids in bees: a review on concentrations, side-effects and risk assessment." Ecotoxicology 21, no. 4 (May 2, 2012): 973-92.
[8] Blacquiere, Tjeerd, Guy Smagghe, Cornelis van Gestel, and Veerle Mommaerts. "Neonicotinoids in bees: a review on concentrations, side-effects and risk assessment." Ecotoxicology 21, no. 4 (May 2, 2012): 973-92.
[9] Hopwood, Jennifer et. al. "Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees?." Xerces Society. Accessed November 17, 2015. http://ento.psu.edu/publications/are-neonicotinoids-killing-bees.
[10] Blacquiere, Tjeerd, Guy Smagghe, Cornelis van Gestel, and Veerle Mommaerts. "Neonicotinoids in bees: a review on concentrations, side-effects and risk assessment." Ecotoxicology 21, no. 4 (May 2, 2012): 973-92.
[11] EPA United States Environmental Protection Agency. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2016. <http://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/data-requirements>.
[12] Blacquiere, Tjeerd, Guy Smagghe, Cornelis van Gestel, and Veerle Mommaerts. "Neonicotinoids in bees: a review on concentrations, side-effects and risk assessment." Ecotoxicology 21, no. 4 (May 2, 2012): 973-92.
[13] Demas, A, and K Kuivila. Insecticides Similar to Nicotine Widespread in Midwest. United States Geological Survey, 24 July 2014. Web. 17 Sept. 2017. <http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=3941#.Vskb3c5Rfww>.
[14] Blacquiere, Tjeerd, Guy Smagghe, Cornelis van Gestel, and Veerle Mommaerts. "Neonicotinoids in bees: a review on concentrations, side-effects and risk assessment." Ecotoxicology 21, no. 4 (May 2, 2012): 973-92.
[15] Dwyer, Marge. "Study strengthens link between neonicotinoids and collapse of honey bee colonies." Harvard School of Public Health. N.p., May 2014. Web. 20 Aug. 2015. <http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/study-strengthens-link-between-neonicotinoids-and-collapse-of-honey-bee-colonies/>.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s