Under pressure from Congress and the honey industry, the Environmental Protection Agency this week ordered an immediate reduction in the use of some widely used pesticides — many of which are applied to plants at some of the largest chain stores in the nation.
That decision may not seem like a big deal, but as Calais author Rowan Jacobsen describes in his book “Fruitless Fall,” it truly is. Bees are tied directly to the success of much of our global food supply, including fruits, nuts and grains.
In the United States, around a third of the food supply (and two-thirds of food crops) is dependent on bee pollination. Broader ecosystems arguably have even more to lose, with some 80 percent of flowering plants relying on bees for their survival.
Neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” are known as a systemic pesticide, water-soluble substances that can travel throughout a crop via its roots, remaining within the plant for multiple seasons. Today, neonics make up the most common class of pesticide in the world, including treatments for most commercially sown grains in the United States.
The House Appropriations Committee even put pressure on the agency in its EPA budget report. “Recent research suggests that neonicotinoids may make honey bees more susceptible to parasites and pathogens. Therefore, the committee directs the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt a comprehensive assessment process that considers the risk of pesticides to honey bees, bumblebees, and solitary bees in all life stages,” said the committee.
So it is encouraging news that the EPA is changing the labeling on pesticides to reduce their use in fields when bees are present, the first significant concession provided to the honey industry, which has reported bee kills of more than 50 percent among some commercial beekeepers.
“Multiple factors play a role in bee colony declines, including pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency is taking action to protect bees from pesticide exposure and these label changes will further our efforts,” said Jim Jones, assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.
Jacobsen and others have become champions for acknowledging that without bees, we face potentially catastrophic changes in food and agriculture.
“Honey bees will survive, in diminished numbers, but I doubt beekeeping can be profitable,” Jacobsen was quoted as saying. “I expect that in 20 years most of our food will come from Mexico, Chile and China — assuming we can pay for it. The major exception to this will be the local food model, but we’re talking small numbers here.”
Some experts say this week’s admission and decision come too late.
In fact, the honey industry and federal government have been trying for years to determine the cause of “colony collapse disorder,” a phenomenon where bees don’t return to hives at night. Many industry officials believe the pesticides are to blame.
In 2007, the first year the disorder made headlines, about 20 billion bees disappeared. Usually when bees die of any number of known diseases, you can find their bodies immediately outside the hive or near the entrance. But since 2007, a widespread plague has hit bees — causing them to behave in unusual ways and simply abandon their hives and die.
Bee experts predict that if the current rate of decline continues, the American bee population will be zero by the year 2035.
The EPA plan focuses mainly on the use of neonics after plants have sprouted. It has developed a new label that governs the use of the pesticide, especially drifting dust. The honey industry also wanted seed coating limited because it makes the flowers of treated plants — many sold at Home Depot and Wal-Mart garden centers — just as poisonous to bees without any field application.
Good for the federal government to finally focus on an issue rather than ignoring its causes. This is a step in the right direction.
In the meantime, Jacobsen says, there are still things we can do at the local level to save the bees. “Buying organic in general is excellent for bees, who are pollinating all those crops. Most organic fruit and veggies was food for bees before it was food for you. Also, landscaping with native plants, which generally provide good bee forage, and avoiding the use of pesticides in your yard are excellent steps.”
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