Neonicotinoids

 

(This 1176th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 6, 2013.)

 

I just added a new word to my vocabulary: neonicotinoid. As with many newly coined terms, this one may be broken down into components. Neo, of course, represents new and then you come to nicotin, an abbreviated form of nicotine, the addictive tobacco smoking stimulant. So neonicotinoids are a new class of drugs with properties similar to nicotine. They are widely used as insecticides.

 

The commonest neonicotinoid is imidacloprid, a Bayer CropScience product sold under the trade names Confidor, Admire, Poncho and Gaucho. In 2009, sales of these and other neonicotinoid pesticides amounted to over $2 million. Today they represent the most commonly applied insecticides in the world.

 

Admittedly, I am late in learning about this term, as neonicotinoids have been in the news in agricultural circles for almost 50 years. Because I believe that their use raises serious issues, however, I share with you what I have learned about them.

 

I'm old enough to recall a time when each summer my suburban Rochester neighborhood was enveloped in clouds of DDT, the wonder pesticide that saved the lives of thousands of our soldiers serving in the South Pacific during World War II and in this way contributed to our winning that war.

 

But then we learned that DDT and other chlorine and phosphorus based insecticides were harming not only insect pests but also beneficial insects, birds and mammals - the latter including us. Over time these insecticides were either banned or strictly controlled and scientists set out to find replacements that would protect crops like corn and wheat that serve as our basic foods.

 

Nicotine was considered but it was problematic. Although it killed insects, it also killed animals up the food chain just as those banned chemicals did. However, chemists found a way around those problems by modifications and the neonicotinides were the result. Birds and mammals were far less affected by them.

 

So we now had a another new wonder drug. In 1994 the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registered several of the neonicotinoids, some conditionally, under its 15-year registration review cycle. It is now re-evaluating the safety of these drugs, but the review process is to take several years.

 

Almost immediately, however, problems arose. A group of North Dakota beekeepers sued Bayer over loss of thousands of honeybee colonies, caused they claimed by neonicotinoid treatment of nearby fields of oilseed rape. They argued that colony collapse disorder (CCD) was caused by these drugs.

 

CCD was a new phenomenon to beekeepers. The worker bees from a hive would head out to feed and not return. Although other possible causes were postulated, a number of studies associated CCD with nearby use of neonicotinoids.

 

Then similar events were reported in Germany, France and Italy. Bayer representatives defended their product, saying that there were serious errors made by those applying the insecticides and that the events were "extremely rare."

 

In 2003 EPA approved use of one of these insecticides despite an internal document (revealed in 2010) that reported the drug as highly toxic to bees.

 

In direct opposition to the EPA's approval, on April 29, 2013, the European Union voted to restrict use of several neonicotinoids for two years beginning December 1, and on July 12, Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer introduced a House bill titled The Save American Pollinators Act, which would suspend use of several neonicotinoids until the EPA makes its decision. The industry's response: such actions would cost billions and tens of thousands of jobs.

 

Enter the Xerces Society, the highly regarded international organization whose concern is the conservation of invertebrates. The society has just distributed its broadside, Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Effects of Neonicotinoid Insecticides on Agriculturally Important Beneficial Invertebrates.

 

Among the report findings: "the balance of evidence suggests that neonicotinoids are generally harmful to a variety of beneficial insects"; their use "represents a fundamental shift away from Integrated Pest Management"; and "neonicotinoid resistance has been documented in a number of pests".

 

Based on these and other findings the report calls upon the EPA "to immediately suspend registration" of a number of these insecticides, these bans to "remain in force until we understand how to manage the risk to non-target species.-- Gerry Rising"

 

Meanwhile the bees continue to die.