White House pollinator health initiative falls short on key issues

Dead bee
CC BY 2.0 Luca Biada

Instead of banning neonicotinoid pesticides, as the European Union has already done, the EPA will simply begin another long round of evaluations.

On one hand, it's great to know that we're starting to see some action being taken at the highest levels in the U.S. about the threats to pollinators, and today's announcement of the release of strategy and research documents that address the issues is a positive sign. On the other hand, it appears as if this, like many other well-intended initiatives that may affect industries with strong lobbyists, will fall short of taking immediate action on at least one issue that other countries have already gone ahead with, which is the banning of neonicotinoid pesticides.

While the EPA recently announced a moratorium on approving any new neonicotinoid pesticide products and uses, it won't apply to those products still in use, which have been shown to harm bees (and other important native pollinators). The pesticide, which isn't just sprayed on crops, but is also used to treat seed (and to then stay in the soil) is implicated in colony collapse disorder, although the companies that develop and sell the products deny any connection to bee health.

The U.S. Pollinator Task Force, with joint leadership from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the USDA (Department of Agriculture), released its strategy documents today, with the intent of making progress on three major fronts:


  • Reducing honey bee colony losses to economically sustainable levels

  • Increasing monarch butterfly numbers to protect the annual migration

  • Restoring or enhancing millions of acres of land for pollinators through combined public and private action.

While the effort is laudable, according to some experts and activists it "fails to adequately address the harm caused by pesticides," which are a known cause of decline in pollinator populations. As Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety, says, "They Are Biocides, Not Pesticides -- And They Are Creating an Ecocide."

"Countless studies have already found that pesticides, and particularly neonicotinoid insecticides, are a leading cause of pollinator declines. Our bees can’t wait for more reports and evaluations. We need to save them by banning neonicotinoids, and especially neonicotinoid seed treatments, right now." - Lori Ann Burd, director of Environmental Health program at the Center for Biological Diversity

"It is abundantly clear that the costs of neonicotinoids outweigh the benefits, and there is no excuse for our agencies to continue to allow such indiscriminate use." - Larissa Walker, pollinator campaign director at Center for Food Safety

And of course, like with most divisive issues that are very complex and not very well understood, there are certainly those who hold to the view that there isn't an issue, and that the beepocalypse simply isn't happening or is part of a a "simplistic narrative" that seeks only to polarize discussions.

The actions of governments are sometimes (usually?) at least a bit contradictory, and the issue of potentially banning neonicotinoids no different. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the decision to phase out the use of these pesticides in national wildlife refuges in Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon and Washington (fully implemented by January 2016), and yet the new Task Force documents aren't nearly as decisive, and the agencies involved in evaluating the use of neonicotinoids may take years to finish their studies.

"The actions described in this report aren’t enough to save our pollinators as long as bee-killing neonicotinoids are being used on more than 100 million acres in this country. A reevaluation of neonicotinoid uses is not enough. For bees and pollinators to survive and thrive, President Obama needs to order an immediate ban on neonicotinoids. And the EPA needs to stop dodging its consultation obligations and fully assess the impacts of neonicotinoids under the Endangered Species Act." - Burd

It isn't just the bees and other insect pollinators that are affected by neonicotinoids, as a recent report from the American Bird Conservancy states that songbirds are also dealt a low blow from these pesticides, and that "A single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird. Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with the oldest neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, can poison a bird."

"American Bird Conservancy is disappointed to see USDA shilling for Bayer, Syngenta and the other pesticide companies. The agency’s baseless attack on the EPA analysis was light on science and ignored the hundreds of studies on neonicotinoid effects on birds, bees, butterflies, and other wildlife." - Cynthia Palmer, director of pesticides science and regulation at American Bird Conservancy

The new Task Force strategy does have some good stuff in it, though, as the Center for Food Safety summarizes:

"The plan calls for reducing honey bee colony losses during winter to no more than 15 percent within 10 years; increasing the monarch butterfly population to 225 million butterflies in the overwintering grounds in Mexico by 2020; and restoring or enhancing 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next 5 years."

If you'd like to weigh in on this issue, consider reading and signing this petition which urges the Task Force "to include strong, immediate action on pesticides in the pollinator protection plan."

Tags: Agriculture | Bees

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