The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) recently released an updated, piercing report that confirms the continual decline of wild birds — as well as beneficial insects and many other animals — due to the uncontrolled use of highly toxic neonicotinoid pesticides. It’s a lengthy read, so I thought I’d offer a fairly brief synopsis to those who appreciate and support biodiversity.
Back in 2013, the ABC produced its ground-breaking paper, “The Impact of the Nation’s Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds” (Mineau and Palmer 2013), which warned of the catastrophic risks that these ambulant and persistent insecticides create for both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, as well as the likely repercussions on wildlife who depend on those ecosystems.
Fast forward ten years, and “Neonicotinoid insecticides: Failing to come to grips with a predictable environmental disaster” (Mineau and Kern 2023) reveals that little has changed, except that the quantity used is hidden from us. The report examines the recent science that echos earlier alarm calls and describes the completely inadequate regulatory response by the EPA and other regulators. According to Hardy Kern, one of the study’s authors, “Some states and agencies have taken minimal actions, but we have a long way to go before these chemicals are no longer a threat to birds, native pollinators and aquatic systems.” A recent comprehensive study in Europe found pesticide and fertilizer use to be “more dramatic than forest alterations, urbanization, and climate change”.
Developed by Bayer and Shell and introduced in the early 1990s, neonicotinoids (“neonics”) have been touted as safe and more benign than any previous pesticide groups. They quickly became popular in pesticide markets worldwide and today they are the most commonly used insecticides (where they haven’t been banned). The neonics group is a synthetic neurotoxin chemically similar to nicotine and includes acetamiprid, thiacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin, imidacloprid and others. They are widely used in agriculture (more than 140 types of crops, including rice, wheat, corn, sunflowers, cotton, nuts, soybeans, fruits and vegetables), in commercial nurseries, and in urban areas on golf courses, parks, gardens and lawns, in insect sprays, and flea and tick veterinary products. (Last month, in response to a Center for Biological Diversity legal petition asking that Seresto flea collars — which have been linked to more than 100,000 reports of harm or death — be pulled from the market, the EPA responded by only requiring that warning labels be placed on the collars.)
Neonics are applied as a soil injection (“soil drenching”) and tree injection, as a foliar spray, and as a seed coating (the most common application). As a plant grows, the systemic pesticide permeates all cells within roots, stems, leaves, pollen, nectar, sap, fruit, and honeydew. In addition to killing what are considered pest insects, neonics indiscriminately poison non-target beneficial species like bees, butterflies and other pollinators, including hummingbirds. An estimated 96 percent of land birds are insectivorous and must feed their young insects (which may be poisoned), and seed-eating birds commonly consume spilled seeds loaded with neonic residue. They can also encounter neonics by inhalation of vapors, skin contact, and in their drinking water. Dust generated from pneumatic seed planting machinery can also kill flying insects directly, and it can disperse off-site at seeding time (making additional plants acutely toxic), and contaminate soil. In the soil, neonics persist for months to years, with drift, irrigation or runoff carrying them long distances, eventually contaminating new soil, plant life and water supplies. Only two to five percent of most seeds coated with neonics make it into a target plant, leaving roughly 95 percent in the soil, where it can contaminate the nests of native ground-nesting bees (70 percent of native bees nest in the ground).
When consumed in lethal doses, neonics permanently bind to nerve cells, which typically causes uncontrollable twitching and shaking followed by paralysis and eventually death. But even small, nonlethal doses can cause severe debilitation to victims’ immune, reproductive, navigation, and nervous systems. Birds may become so incapacitated that they don’t eat, migrate, reproduce, and become paralyzed or experience seizures. Researchers have found destructive reproductive effects at concentrations much lower than the thresholds set by regulators: The ABC found that ingesting just one-tenth of a contaminated corn kernel (with any of the neonics) per day during egg-laying season can negatively affect bird reproduction. Appallingly, “A single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird. Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with the oldest neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, can poison a bird.” The ABC authors expressed, “Based on recent studies, we have increasing concerns over reproductive and sub-lethal effects resulting from low exposures in farm fields … Given that exposure is often season-long, this raises the specter of significant effects on a large number of bird species.”
Due to widespread use, neonics have caused and continue to cause extensive ecosystem contamination, including watersheds, groundwater, and irrigation water. Neonics’ water solubility means that they travel easily in surface runoff, contaminating aquifers and other aquatic environments—residues have even been found in seabirds’ feathers and raptors, and there is proof that they kill fish and other aquatic animals. A U.S. Geological Survey study found that neonics polluted more than half of the streams in the U.S. In addition, bats are directly and indirectly harmed, and birth defects have been found in white-tailed deer. If you’re wondering about harm to humans, the NRDC’s “Potential Risks to Brain and Sperm” article details the health impacts, including the possibility of creating even more toxic compounds when neonics are mixed with things like chlorine at water treatment plants. The good news is that organically-grown foods are mostly neonic-free.
Unwillingness of regulators
Regulation of these chemicals is extremely inadequate. The ABC authors say, “The U.S. is far behind the European Union and a few Canadian provinces in responsible regulation and mitigation. The main uses of neonicotinoid insecticides go against fundamental principles of integrated pest management. Alternatives to these chemicals do exist … We believe they have failed in the execution of their mandate and in preventing the ongoing environmental tragedy that neonics represent.”
Possibly the worst debacle of regulators is that seeds coated with neonics are not regulated at all; they’re included in the “Treated Item Exemption” of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which, according to the ABC authors, means that most neonic applications are not counted in usage estimates. In 2017 a number of NGOs petitioned the EPA to remove seed treatments from the exemption. It took the EPA, which ignores the advice of its own scientists, five years to deny it. Earlier this summer the groups sued the EPA.
The U.S. government has also lessened the amount of data available about pesticide use and proliferation to scientists and the public. Earlier this year the U.S. Geological Survey cut the amount of data it collects in its National Pesticide Use Map, and beginning in 2024 its report will be released only every five years, instead of yearly. It’s also shrunken the number of pesticides it monitors from 400 to 72, partly because the USGS purchases data from a private company, which stopped including seed treatments in usage stats around 2015. The USGS says that “seed coatings are too difficult to reliably source information on and, therefore, are not included in national pesticide-use estimates.” They’re also left out of National Water Quality Assessment maps.
So, no one knows how much neonics are used on seeds. A USGS graph of clothianidin usage in the 2023 ABC report shows that over 3.5 million pounds were used in 2014 (mostly on corn), and in 2015 the usage was slightly more than 500,000 pounds. Of course this doesn’t mean that less clothianidin was used; only that seed treatments were dropped from estimated use.
A 2019 study found that U.S. agriculture is nearly 50 times more toxic to insects than it was 25 years earlier and neonics are responsible for a whopping 92 percent of that atrocity—this is especially heinous considering the “insect apocalypse” that experts predict. Despite their rampant use, neonics can actually make pest problems worse because not only do they kill beneficial wildlife; they also kill soil microbes that improve plants’ health, durability, and crop yields. And, there is even evidence that neonics reduce crop production. In the U.S., there is no law that requires manufacturers prove that their product works. Speaking with National Geographic, Kendra Klein, study co-author and senior staff scientist at Friends of the Earth U.S., said, “We have four decades of research and evidence that agroecological farming methods can grow our food without decimating pollinators.”
Are neonics the new “Silent Spring”?
North America lost more than three billion birds (even species once considered common) between 1970 and 2018 — 29% of 1970 abundance — due in part to the ubiquitous use of neonics. Even the EPA confirmed that the use of imidicloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam) harm roughly 75 percent of all endangered plants and animals. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, there’s been horrendous harm to imperiled species by all three insecticides, such as “all 39 species of endangered amphibians, including the California red-legged frog, as well as rusty patched bumblebees, whooping cranes, chinook salmon, northern long-eared bats and orcas.” The American bumblebee, once the most commonly observed bumblebee species in the U.S., has declined by an estimated 89 percent in just the past 20 years. Clearly, neonicotinoids are one of the most dangerous, toxic classes of pesticides that pose atrocious longterm threats to biodiversity. We’re in the midst of a harrowing extinction crisis with beneficial insects, birds, aquatic life, and mammals dying off in appalling numbers and neonics are a major, reckless threat that the earth does not need. “Neonics may not bioaccumulate in organisms and biomagnify in food webs as did DDT and other organochlorine pesticides of old, but they appear to be as widely distributed in the broader terrestrial and aquatic environments,” according to the ABC report’s authors.
Neonics are mostly banned in the EU (even “emergency” uses have been overturned in court) and parts of Canada (Ontario and Quebec require a prescription to use neonics to coat seeds, which has drastically reduced their use). Although a few states in the U.S. have passed legislation that restricts the use of neonics (but doesn’t eliminate them), and other states are beginning to take action, only severe restrictions by the EPA will protect ecosystems, biodiversity and human health from these noxious, unnecessary chemicals before it’s too late.
In July of this year, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the Pollinator-Friendly Plant Labeling Act, which would require the Department of Agriculture to create a certification program for plant producers to certify that their plants are not treated with pesticides or substance not approved for use in organically-grown products that are harmful to pollinators. Producers who choose to participate in the program would be able to use a “USDA pollinator-friendly” label on their plants and products. It’s a minor action, but is a step in the right direction.
In the home garden
The Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides states, “Neonicotinoids are found in hundreds of products sold over the counter under various trade names. Many of these are designed for individual home and garden use. One of the most toxic neonicotinoids to our native bees — imidacloprid — is commonly applied to gardens, flowerbeds, shrubs, and trees in urban and residential areas.” According to the Xerces Society, “even when used according to printed instructions, garden products containing neonicotinoids can be applied to plants in concentrations dozens of times greater than on farm crops [sometimes at concentrations of as much as 120 times]. This means that bees can be exposed to lethal doses of neonicotinoids in gardens. Even if bees are not killed outright, smaller (non-lethal) doses can impact their health.” Remember that labels do not indicate that they are harmful to pollinators, so it’s important to either not buy such products or be sure to read ingredient lists (Imidacloprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam are all neonics found in garden products). This Xerces Society brochure explains how to protect pollinators from neonics.
What you can do:
- Buy organically-grown foods, seeds, bird-friendly coffee, and other products whenever possible (they’re not always much more expensive). If feasible, grow some organic produce at home. Find a list organic seed companies here.
- Shop at plant nurseries that don’t use neonics (always ask if you’re unsure).
- Don’t buy/use products that contain neonics (be sure to read labels).
- Create pesticide-free, safe outdoor spaces using regional native plants that will encourage wildlife such as native bees, butterflies, birds, and other beneficials.
- Ask your state and federal legislators to advance laws that eliminate (or at least severely restrict) pesticide use.
- Email the EPA to voice your concerns about the lack of regulations on pesticide-coated seeds: email@example.com
- Watch Beyond Pesticides’ short video for more info on toxic seeds and check out ABC’s fact sheet.