Scientists call for global neonics ban

Did you know that one in every three bites of food you take is made possible by the world’s friendly, fuzzy, pollinating bees? Without insect pollinators, our entire society would collapse – thats why scientists have made it their mission to protect these essential insects at all costs.

Earlier this month, 242 scientists from across the world sent an open letter to international governments calling for immediate global action to protect pollinators from the harmful impacts of neonicotinoids – the most widely used agricultural insecticides in the world.

The letter states, “the balance of evidence strongly suggests that these chemicals are harming beneficial insects and contributing to the current massive loss of biodiversity. As such, there is an immediate need for national and international agreements to greatly restrict their use.”

Neonicotinoids – or ‘neonics’ – have played a large role in recent pollinator declines. Dr. Jeremy Kerr from the University of Ottawa has been heavily involved in the subject of neonics and bees. As a signatory of the letter, Kerr spoke to the CBC’s Bob MacDonald about the risks of continued neonic use, and explained how it can be fatal for bee populations, as it causes their reproductive capacity to disappear.

When you think of pesticides, the mind automatically jumps to a foggy haze of chemical spray clouding over fields of crops. But neonics often aren’t used like that – seeds are commonly doused in a coating of the insecticide before being planted, allowing the chemicals to be taken up through the roots and tissues of each plant as it grows.

It was thought that this method of insecticide use would be more environmentally-friendly because it requires less spraying on crops – but, Kerr says, that is not the case.

The problem? When coated seeds are planted, the dust is churned up and blown to surrounding areas, infecting nearby wildflowers, and exposing pollinating bees to fatal toxins.

“Pushing them to the brink of extinction means we will lose the services that they provide. This is not something we want to play with,” Kerr told the CBC.

“The case has become quite clear that these chemicals are causing harm and their use is largely unjustifiable. There’s something like 1,500 different studies that have been conducted and reviewed that basically say that every single neonicotinoid pesticide is demonstrated to harm bee populations.”

Neonics are highly water soluble and the chemical can easily make its way into water supplies, where it has been found to ravage aquatic insects and pollinators like butterflies and bees. It can remain present in water for 5-10 years after its original application.

“We’ve seen experimental evidence that was very carefully conducted in Canada and Europe… that demonstrate that bees’ reproductive capacity begins to disappear when neonics are applied, and honey bee populations begin to fade away, worker life expectancies begin to drop very sharply,” Kerr said.

“When you put all of this evidence all together, the case, I’m afraid, is becoming quite clear that neonics are very harmful to insects that really benefit agriculture.”

Back in April, the European Union came together to ban the use of neonics because of the serious threat they pose to bee populations. Some were concerned that European agriculture would suffer tremendously as a result, but Kerr told the CBC, “there was actually no decline in crop yields when neonics were banned. Instead farmers started using more targeted pesticides that were far more limited in their environmental impact, and yields actually have risen since then.”

Kerr also spoke of a study conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which found that applying neonics to soybeans creates no benefit whatsoever to soybean yield, it just makes the seeds more expensive to buy.

“Pesticides that create no benefits should be phased out, and where they create benefits, they should be used in an absolutely minimal way. I’ve interacted with many producers over the years and I’ve never met one who wanted to cause harm to the lands that they farm,” Kerr said.

He said there are alternatives that can be equally or more efficient for crop yields, so a reduction of neonic use shouldn’t cause any sort of chaos in agricultural production.

“The proof is kind of in the pudding on this and may probably even increase the yields and profitability in instances where pesticide uses turn out to have no benefits.”

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