Since our podcast on neonicotinoid pesticides and bee deaths, increasing pressure on the EPA has prompted the agency to a pretense of action to protect bees. Faced with mounting evidence of the threat these insecticides pose to bees and other pollinators, the EU has adopted strong restrictions on the use of neonics. But EPA chose another approach.
Bees are vital for US agriculture, as the insects are needed to pollinate billions of dollars worth of fruit and vegetable crops, from almonds to avocados and many more. Our government’s response to the potential devastation that would follow from the loss of bee populations: ask farmers to please be more careful when using bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides, with a neat new label on the pesticides.
Creating a labeling is not a simple task, and we’ve uncovered the first draft labeling guide. As you can see, the EPA put a lot of work into this!
Whether you look at the draft or the final label, the labeling will have little impact on the problem neonics create for bees, since the label ignores the way these pesticides are most often used. In most cases farmers are not spraying neonicotinoids at all, so asking them not to spray when bees are around ignores the problem. Neonicotinoids are mostly used as a seed coating – the seeds are already treated when the farmers get them. During planting, clouds of pesticide-laden dust waft through the air and persist in the environment, in areas where bees feed. As the nonprofit Beyond Pesticides points out, the science shows that bees are at risk from neonicotinoids at even low doses that could be found from such environmental exposures.
What’s also been ignored is the EPA’s track record when it comes to enforcing such labeling guidelines. Consider the case of genetically modified (GMO) Bt crops: EPA “required” farmers who plant these pesticide-engineered crops to plant some acres without the pesticide, in an attempt to provide a “refuge” for insects and thus head off insect resistance to the pesticide. This refuge requirement was something that leading farm groups and scientists agreed was essential to insure the Bt GMO crops would continue to work, so it was in the farmer’s interest to comply. But for more than a decade, survey after survey shows that significant numbers of farmers ignore the refuge requirement. In 2001, after 6 years of telling farmers that compliance was mandatory and essential, there were still nearly 30% of farmers not complying. Two years later, USDA found that 20% of farmers planted no refuge, and another 6% planted less than the required acreage. The agencies promised new enforcement to insure compliance. Compliance may have improved for a couple of years (if you believe pesticide industry surveys of farmer self reporting!), but in 2009 a report showed about 25% of farmers were still (or again) not complying. More enforcement was promised, and surprise! Last year, noncompliance increased to 41% of farmers.
Given this history, it’s clear that EPA’s bee label has no chance of making any impact at all. Remember, the Bt refuge system wasn’t just a good idea – it was a requirement EPA ordered the pesticide/GMO companies to implement. Even the most anti-regulation farm groups agreed that nearly full compliance to the refuge systems was critical. Yet still many farmers simply ignored the requirement, and neither farmers nor the pesticide/GMO crop makers suffered any consequences for this massive failure.
Now consider the bee label – something that offers farmers no upside, that won’t be monitored and won’t be enforced. If farmers don’t comply when rules are set in their own interest, why would they comply with a label that asks them to pretty please change their practices to save a few bees?