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Another pollinator dilemma: neonicotinoid insecticides

Insecticides designed to protect food resources may actually be harmful to food security in the long run.

Honeybees
REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Pollinators such as honeybees, orchid bees, and butterflies are already facing extreme habitat destruction, disease, and isolation.
Insecticides designed to protect food resources may actually be harmful to food security in the long run. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) and the European Commission, studies have confirmed that a particular group of insecticides, known as neonicotinoids, are doing much more than controlling pest populations. Widely used across the Midwest for agricultural purposes and gardening, neonicotinoids are damaging pollinator populations.

The MDA states that “pollinators are essential for the reproduction of 90% of the world’s flowering plants and 30% of the foods humans consume.” Without them, the future of plant diversity, ecosystem health, and food security looks grim. Pollinators such as honeybees, orchid bees, and butterflies are already facing extreme habitat destruction, disease, and isolation due to the loss of floral abundance and the expansion of human-based land use. All of this, according to the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, has caused a global decrease in pollinator populations.

Distributed through plant’s tissues

Unlike other types of pesticides that remain on the surface of a plant, neonicotinoids are a type of water-soluble insecticide that is absorbed into the plant and is distributed throughout its tissues — from the roots to the leaves, and even to the flowers. Neonicotinoids typically come in the form of a liquid spray or as a dusted coating found on commercially sold seeds. In rural Minnesota, the primary use of neonicotinoids is found in treated seeds for soybean and corn crops.

Bill Hutchison, coordinator of the MN Extension Integrated Pest Management Program, describes the perspective of farmers who may rely heavily on neonicotinoid-treated seeds despite their environmental and ecological impacts:

“The rationale with both seed companies and growers […] is that growers who have been ‘burned’ by one of these pests in the past do not want to experience the same loss in the future— the cost to replant either crop is an additional [and] significant expense to avoid […]. Thus, the seed treatment is an added production cost that falls in the ‘insurance’ application concept.”

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The high risk associated with purchasing untreated crop seeds prompts more farmers to rely entirely on neonicotinoid-treated seeds. In addition, Bob Koch, a soybean entomologist at the University of Minnesota, explains that there is a lack of high-quality inspection methods and predictive models for pest outbreaks in rural communities. Unfortunately, this type of research is often overlooked, and funding can be hard to come by. Without proper resources available, farmers remain in the dark about alternatives to neonicotinoid application.

Some seed companies, such as Unified Ag Solutions, promote treated seeds as a way to create higher yields and increase profit, but pest outbreaks are relatively uncommon and difficult to predict. Recent studies posted by Scientific Reports have found that treated soybean crops have demonstrated negligible and inconsistent yield benefit to U.S. farmers.

Consequences to nontarget organisms

A final rationale for neonicotinoid use stems from its relatively low toxicity to mammals, birds, and amphibians compared to its insecticide counterparts. While it is true that low concentrations of neonicotinoids are highly effective in removing pests, the consequences of exposure to these chemicals to nontarget organisms must be considered. Neonicotinoids work by binding to receptors found in insect central nervous systems to cause death. According to the MDA’s Special Registration Review, “the binding affinity of neonicotinoids at the nicotinic receptors in vertebrates (mammals and birds) is much less than that of insect nicotinic receptors and these neonicotinoids are considered much less toxic to mammals and birds than to insects.” However, ongoing exposure to neonicotinoids at sub-lethal concentrations has become a health concern.

Shauna Capron
Shauna Capron
Various organizations and programs have sprung into action around the country to combat the negative ecological and environmental effects caused by neonicotinoids. The Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP), for example, helps cities and communities craft Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plans that incentivize farmers to move away from treated seeds and make more environmentally conscientious decisions. IPM is an ecosystem-based strategy that uses a combination of techniques to minimize health risks to people, nontarget organisms, and the environment. For example, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture IPM center is a successful incentive-based program that combines environmental care and economic feasibility for farmers. Approaches like these demonstrate why IPM approaches should play a larger role in local governments of rural communities.

When using neonicotinoids, it is necessary to consider both the benefits of food security and crop yields along with the larger impacts they have on the environment and on nontarget organisms. Pollinators in particular should be included in this discussion because human livelihood and environmental health are deeply connected. Therefore, it is critical to stay informed and engaged with challenges to environmental health, such as neonicotinoids, that will certainly impact the future.

Shauna Capron is a senior geography and environmental studies student at Gustavus Adolphus College who is committed to raising awareness and inspiring action for a more sustainable and just future.

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