Protecting endangered species from the overuse of deadly “neonic” pesticides

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Endangered species in America, from bees to birds, may start to breathe a little easier.

Earlier this month, the US EPA took an important step in protecting many endangered species from dangerous insecticides.

First, the technical elements. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said on June 16 that three “neonic” pesticides are likely to negatively affect two-thirds to more than three-quarters of America’s threatened species – 1,225 to 1,445 species in total . The three neonicotinoid insecticides, also called neonicotinoids, are clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam.

It is now up to the federal government, as well as the states, to build on this decision. If they do, it will help protect endangered species in the future and help make farming more sustainable in states like Illinois with strong agricultural foundations.

“[The EPA ruling] is good news. It’s a call to action from federal and state governments,” Steve Blackledge, senior director of Environment America’s Conservation America campaign, told us. “Neonics cause a lot of harm.”

Neonics are effective pesticides that are applied in small doses directly to the surface of the seeds. They add a much smaller amount of pesticides to the environment than blanket spraying.

But they are taken up by plants, making the whole plant – including the plant’s nectar, pollen and fruit – deadly to some species, and they can persist in the soil for years. Transported by runoff, neonics pollute waterways across the country.

“It’s kind of scary to see how [neonics] has taken over crop farming,” Bill Freese, chief scientist at the Washington-based Center for Food Safety, told us.

Because neonics are so efficient, sustainable organic farming practices such as crop rotation and planting off-season cover crops have tended to be abandoned, Freese said.

The neonics are banned in the European Union, but they are the most popular insecticides in the United States. The Illinois Public Interest Research Group has called for an end to overuse of pesticides, including a ban on consumer use. Studies have shown that neonics harm bees, birds, butterflies, freshwater invertebrates and mammals, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

As Lori Ann Burd, the center’s director of environmental health, said, “We’re in the midst of a heartbreaking extinction crisis, and neonicotinoids are playing an outsized role in driving it.”

Many species are in trouble. The once common American bumblebee has declined by approximately 89% over the past 20 years. A 2019 analysis found wild bird populations in the continental United States and Canada have declined by 29% — or about 3 billion birds — since 1970.

Species the EPA has found likely to be affected by neonics include Chinook salmon, Florida panther, Indiana bat, whooping crane, California red-legged frog, butterfly Karner blue and yellow larkspur, said the Center for Food Safety.

It’s not just about losing endangered species. According to the Illinois PIRG, bees pollinate 71 of the top 100 crops that provide 90% of the world’s food. Killing pests with pesticides doesn’t help as much as it should if the plants aren’t pollinated.

Clearly, endangered species need our help.

The next step in the neonics regulatory process is for the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to develop safeguards for the use of neonics based on the EPA decision.

In the past year, Massachusetts, Maine, New York and New Jersey have banned the sale of neonics to consumers. In Illinois, State Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, introduced a bill in January limiting the use of neonics on public lands, but the bill stalled at the Rules Committee at the end of the session.

“The science is very clear [neonics] pose serious environmental threats,” Guzzardi said. “We’ve been working on this for a few years, but the chemical industry is dug in on this.”

Farmers need to be productive, especially at a time when food supplies are disrupted around the world. But this productivity should not come at the cost of unnecessarily harming many of our native species.

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