Two new studies have revived the debate around a class of neuro-active, nicotine-based systemic insecticides known as Neonicotinoids.
The “Neonics” are a class of pesticides which have previously been linked to declines in bee populations. They were developed in 1991 and commercial use began in the mid-1990s. Around 2006 commercial beekeepers began reporting what has become known as colony collapse disorder— entire colonies of bees died off with no obvious cause. The disorder has been reported in commercial colonies all over the world. Several studies have implicated Neonics, which are used to kill insects harmful to crops.
The most recent study was published in the journal Nature by Dutch researchers found a strong correlation between pesticides measured in surface freshwater and lower population growth rates of 14 species of birds in the Netherlands. The study suggests the bird population may be drinking infected water or feeding their offspring infected insects.
The researchers studied two long-term environmental monitoring databases and found when the Neonic levels were the highest the bird populations declined by 3.5 percent. Other causes such as changes in land use, which has been suspected as the leading cause of population decline in Europe, were considered, however these did not correlate as strongly as the pesticide levels. Study coauthor Ruud Foppen said although the correlations are very convincing, they are only correlations and cannot yet be deemed the cause of the bird population deaths.
While most individual studies focus on impacts on specific organisms, habitats or locations, another recent study focused on biodiversity and impacts on ecosystems. Twenty nine scientists from four continents spent five years researching eight hundred published studies that examined the effect of Neonics on ecosystems that support food production and wildlife. Their research was published in the journal Environment Science and Pollution Research.
The Worldwide Integrated Assessment of the Impact of Systemic Pesticides on Biodiversity and Ecosystems (WIA) was produced by Task Force on Systemic Pesticides. The Task Force was formed in response to concerns about the impact of systemic pesticides on biodiversity and ecosystems. ” They say their study is “the single most comprehensive study of Neonics ever undertaken”. The scientists research found that the Neonics are as great a risk to the environment as the previously banned DDT. In some cases the effects were found to be 5,000 to 10,000 times more toxic to bees than DDT.
While certain aspects of the analysis have been acknowledged, much of it was unknown, including risks to birds, earthworms, butterflies and aquatic invertebrates. As previous studies have shown, the pesticides can impair the sense of smell and memory in bees that are used for navigation. The new analysis shows similar effects on butterfly and other insect pollinator populations. The aquatic animals affected include freshwater snails, water fleas, fish, microbes and amphibians, all of which are affected after being exposed to high levels or for extended periods of time. Reptiles also have seen declining numbers due to the loss of their insect prey. Research has also shown that exposure to the pesticides can change the tunneling behavior of earthworms.
One of the most troubling finds of the comprehensive study is that once the Neonics break down into the soil the metabolites can be more toxic than the active ingredients. The pesticides have been shown to persist in soil for more than 1,000 days. David Goulson, one of the report’s authors, told Phys.org “If you use them every year they accumulate, they get into the soil water and hence into streams. So essentially we are contaminating the global environment with highly toxic, highly persistent chemicals.”
The scientists urge global regulatory agencies “to further tighten regulations on neonicotinoids and fipronil, and consider formulating plans for a substantial reduction of the global scale of use.” They recommend governments start planning for a global phase-out or at least a strong reduction of the global scale of use, which they say is unsustainable.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of the dangers of the chemicals, bio-technology and pesticide companies continue to proclaim their safety. The pesticide manufacture Syngenta has requested the government of the United Kingdom grant them an “emergency” exemption from the European Union ban on Neonics and allow the company to spray Oilseed rape with the Neonics.
The dangers the Neonicotinoids pose cannot be overstated. In lieu of global government action concerned individuals can support organic farms and community gardens. The use of pesticides has exploded as large industrial factory farming has attempted to keep up with population growth. By pursuing and supporting sustainable, organic, pesticide free farming and gardening we can starve the industry that is literally killing the planet and its inhabitants.