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In no particular hurry, EPA limits new uses of bee-killing crop treatments

Whether the action will ever make much difference to the overall health of managed honeybees can’t be known for a while.

Whether the action announced late last week will ever make much difference to the overall health of the managed honeybees whose labor is critical to something like one-third of the American diet – or to the well-being of other, wild insects and invertebrates also thought to be harmed by the neonics – can’t be known for a while.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

In placing a tentative sort of moratorium on new uses of neonicotinoid insecticides across the United States, the federal Environmental Protection Agency seems to be signaling at last a possible willingness to slow the spread of crop treatments that have been implicated in honeybee die-offs.

But don’t be misled by headlines that, by combining words like restrict, pesticide, bees and die-off in condensed phrasing, could be taken to suggest that something like an immediate change in regulation of neonic use is in the offing.

Indeed, whether the action announced late last week will ever make much difference to the overall health of the managed honeybees whose labor is critical to something like one-third of the American diet – or to the well-being of other, wild insects and invertebrates also thought to be harmed by the neonics – can’t be known for a while.

Possibly not until sometime in 2018, unless Congress or a court forces the agency to pick up the pace.

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On the one hand, EPA is saying that it is sufficiently concerned about harm to bees and other pollinators that it probably won’t approve any new uses until it has had a chance to review incoming data on bee impacts, along with “pollinator risk assessments.” That same information will inform its ongoing review of the registrations it has granted to the neonics, a process it notes has been “accelerated.”

On the other hand, as EPA explains on its status page regarding current pesticide registration reviews, the speed-up was undertaken not to move more swiftly toward any necessary rethinking of its earlier approvals of the neonics, but to assure “a level playing field for the products” by reviewing them in more or less the same time frame, regardless of when they were originally approved.

According to Reuters, that time frame extends to 2018 for four of the neonic types and the following year for two others. Efforts to quicken that pace through litigation and lobbying have fallen short so far.

As for the moratorium on new and expanded uses announced last Thursday, it is less than entirely clear how much iron cladding has been applied to the new policy anyway.

Meanwhile, new findings extend the neonics’ risk beyond managed honeybees. Just yesterday came news of a fresh study linking them to monarch butterflies’ decline as well.

Exceptions to the new rule

Here’s the relevant portion of EPA’s letter to applicants seeking an OK for new uses of four neonics – imidacloprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin and thiamethoxam – and to manufacturers of products that customers might want to use in new ways (my emphasis and paragraphing added):

[U]ntil EPA receives and assesses the outstanding pollinator health data, EPA is unlikely to be in a position to grant any submitted registration action that involves a request with  one of these pesticides for a new outdoor use or use expansion.

However, EPA acknowledges that the merits ofindividual actions may differ and that, for example, a pest management need could arise during this interim period that would support the issuance of an emergency exemption. …

EPA will assess such requests by relying on currently available information and risk mitigation strategies. This announcement does not preclude the approval of products that are identical or substantially similar to existing uses (i.e., “me-too” products).

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EPA’s information pages on bee die-offs note that the honeybee situation has changed somewhat, and become more complex, over the last few years, which certainly is so.

The incidence of “colony collapse disorder” in its initial, classic form detected in 2006 and 2007  – mass abandonment of colonies, for unknown reasons, by bees that are never found – has become less prevalent. But the overall rates of colony loss have changed little; they fluctuate and remain unsustainably high for most commercial beekepers.

It remains true that bees are also beset by other pressures, the two most important being parasitic infection via varroa mites, and the disappearance of natural forage because of habitat loss.

But of the three principal factors, addressing the neonics is a simpler if not easier solution to embrace than restoring vast swaths of habitat or, so far, finding a magic bullet to kill the mites. (EPA recently approved a new use for oxalic acid as a varroa-killer, but nobody seems confident  it will eliminate the mite factor anytime soon.)

European examples

Some European countries have banned the neonics to save their pollinators, and many in the U.S. think it’s an example that deserves at least experimental emulation.

Instead, EPA has elected only a modest step to reject expanded use of the neonics – for the time being, unless emergency situations or individual circumstances warrant an exception – and that drew swift responses from organizations that have been working on pollinator protection from a variety of angles.

A sampling of their comments, assembled by the Center for Food Safety:

Peter T. Jenkins, attorney for the center:  “EPA has finally admitted it lacks the basic data needed to determine whether bees, other pollinators, or the environment will be adversely affected by neonicotinoids. If EPA is unable to assess the safety of new uses, the agency similarly is not able to assess the safety of the close to 100 outdoor uses already approved. In view of its admissions, EPA has no option under [the federal pesticide law] other than to suspend the existing uses, as well as follow through with its moratorium on the proposed new uses.”

Jeff Anderson, a beekeeper and owner of California Minnesota Honey Farms: “EPA’s announcement is disingenuous. In the last year, EPA has approved registration for two new neonics, and expanded uses of these pesticides to additional blooming crops — also increasing residue tolerances to accommodate these new uses. Allowing increased toxic exposure to my bees and then announcing a moratorium? Very disingenuous.”

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Kristin Schafer, policy director at Pesticide Action Network North America: “It’s welcome news that EPA is finally beginning to address the threat that neonics pose to the nation’s bees and other pollinators, but given the threats to the nation’s food and farming system, more is needed. Numerous bee-harming neonics and their cousin products are already on the market, and seed coatings in particular have led to a dramatic surge in use over the last few years. EPA should go further to place a moratorium on existing products.”

Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides: “Although EPA acknowledges the harm neonicotinoids cause to pollinators, this action simply does not address the current neonicotinoid and other systemic insecticide products used in agriculture and by consumers that already pose unacceptable risks to pollinators. We urge the agency to suspend neonicotinoid products and take meaningful action on pollinator health.”