It's fitting that Earth Day comes in spring, a season for planting vegetables and enjoying fresh, fragrant blossoms. But as we celebrate nature's annual rebirth, there are growing signs of trouble with the winged workers who not only pollinate flowers, but are essential to our food supply: bees.
One out of every three bites of food you and I eat is from crops pollinated by honeybees. Bees and other pollinators are necessary for about 75 percent of all global food crops. Honeybees also contribute over $15 billion to the U.S. economy. With roughly 80 percent of all flowering plants on Earth reliant on pollinators to reproduce, if we lose bees we will likely lose a host of other important species.
The news has been full of reports about an epidemic of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which bee colonies have been mysteriously collapsing when adult bees seemingly abandon their hives. This winter, U.S. beekeepers reported bee die-offs of 50 to 70 percent - pushing the beekeeping industry to the verge of collapse.
Pests, diseases and changing climate have all been identified as contributing factors. But a growing body of scientific evidence points to a class of neurotoxic pesticides called neonicotinoids or neonics - compounds related to chemicals produced by tobacco plants - as a key factor in colony collapses. In January, the European Food Safety Authority labeled neonics an "unacceptable" danger to bees. And a new report from the American Bird Conservancy a provides compelling evidence that neonics are also harming birds.
Neonics are the fastest-growing class of synthetic pesticides in history, and one called imidacloprid - Bayer CropScience's top-selling product - is the most widely used insecticide in the world. Neonics are used as seed treatments on more than 140 varieties of crops, as well as on termites, cat and dog flea treatments, lawns, landscapes and gardens.
Neonics are persistent and last for years in the soil. They permeate the entire plant and are expressed in pollen, nectar and dew. Because they can't be washed off food, we are all ingesting them daily. Nor is their use limited to commercial crops: Many of the plants and seeds we buy from nurseries have been pre-treated with these pesticides, at doses up to 120 times higher than are used on farms.
In 2003 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conditionally approved Bayer's neonic clothianidin, based on the company's own studies. Despite mounting evidence, including a memo by the EPA's own scientists discrediting Bayer's original study, and more than a million public comments from Americans urging tighter regulation, the agency has decided to take no action on neonics until 2018. Other nations haven't been so slow to act. Governments in Italy, Germany, France and elsewhere have already taken action to limit neonics, and beekeepers there are reporting recovery.
The European Food Safety Authority's study has prompted the European Parliament to consider a two-year ban on three widely used neonics. After a campaign by Friends of the Earth, major home and garden retailers and grocery stores http://buswk.co/15jCj9Z in the United Kingdom have pledged to stop selling neonics.
Bees are canaries in the coal mine, warning us that the way we produce our food is unhealthy and unsustainable. Instead of more risky chemicals, we need a rapid transition to safe and sustainable agriculture. A new study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that we could move away from chemically intensive industrial agriculture toward a system of ecologically friendly agriculture and still continue to produce enough food for us all. If we don't take action soon, the buzzing of bees won't be the only thing to disappear from our gardens and farms.
Lisa Archer is director of the food and technology program for Friends of the Earth U.S. Follow the organization on Twitter at @foe_us.
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