A comprehensive assessment released last week by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) confirmed that neonicotinoids, the most widely used class of insecticides in the world, pose risks to honey bees and wild pollinators. EFSA analyzed over 1,500 studies from academia, beekeeper associations, chemical companies, farmer groups, non-governmental organizations, and national regulators. EFSA’s risk assessment provides a definitive, independent conclusion that overall, continued use of these chemicals risks the long-term health of pollinator populations.
“The availability of such a substantial amount of data as well as the guidance has enabled us to produce very detailed conclusions,” said Jose Tarazona, PhD, head of EFSA’s Pesticides Unit in a press release. This is EFSA’s second comprehensive evaluation of the three most commonly used neonicotinoids: imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam. Earlier research finalized in 2013 led the European Union (EU) to ban use of the three neonicotinoids on agricultural flowering crops. The new assessment applies EFSA guidance to assessing risks to bees and on the initial review. It includes literature not only on honey bees, but also on wild pollinators, including bumblebees and solitary bees.
EFSA stresses that although some low risks were identified, “In most of the cases where some low risks were identified for a particular use, high risks were also identified for the same use.” Risk assessors looked at three broad routes of exposure: residues from pollen and nectar, dust drift during sowing or application of neonicotinoid-treated seeds, and water consumption. While, for instance, looking at canola production, EFSA determined that chemical residues in nectar and pollen pose a low risk to honey bees, they are at the same time deemed a high risk for bumblebees, and residues via dust drift are likewise considered a high risk to honey bees. Thus, the researchers emphasize that their conclusion of risk is broad and all-encompassing.
That aspect is important, because throughout the over 11-year crisis, the major manufacturers of neonicotinoids, Bayer and Syngenta, as well as companies like Monsanto that coat their proprietary seeds in these chemicals, have worked hard to muddle and spin scientific conclusions around neonicotinoids. One study showing low risks to one pollinator does not negate high risks to another species, but the chemical industry seeks to downplay hazards, despite the preponderance of evidence linking bee decline to pesticides. Between now and the European Commission’s upcoming vote, these efforts are likely to increase in the media, as well as behind closed doors.
EFSA’s assessment should be a wake-up call for federal and state regulators in the U.S. In January 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its risk assessment documents on pollinator exposure to neonicotinoids, finding no significant risks despite the overwhelming scientific literature and despite identifying instances where bees could be put at risk.
The differences between EPA’s and EFSA’s conclusions highlight the problem with the U.S. system for registering and evaluating pesticides, but also points to an agency that is close to the companies it regulates. While EFSA considered a range of independent data for its assessments, EPA only considers information provided by pesticide manufacturers. The agency has the ability to review independent science or call in additional information from producers to ensure there are no adverse effects from a pesticide’s use, but often neglects to do so. The agency also ignores or minimizes the effect of entire routes of exposure. EPA’s assessment did not consider risks from exposure via water consumption, and did not conduct an assessment on exposure from the dust drift off of treated seeds, instead citing best management practices to reduce dust. Rather than ban or even restrict neonicotinoids, EPA’s only concrete response has been to slightly alter the label language on neonicotinoid products. At present, the agency is preparing to reregister these insecticides for another 15-year period.
In view of EPA’s failure to act, states must take the lead in protecting the nation’s pollinators.