“This election was about ‘draining the swamp’ and changing the way Washington works. Neonics and other US EPA actions would be a good place to begin.”
Canadian regulators have followed the EU’s (flawed) lead. For years, environmentalists and beekeepers in Ontario and Quebec Provinces have battled farmers and beekeepers in the rest of Canada over whether neonics pose a threat to bees. It’s the tail wagging the dog, since 80 percent of beekeeping is in these other provinces.
Canadian law requires that every incidence of beehive losses be described in an exhaustive examination and reported to HealthCanada. Reports filed from the beginning of record-keeping through 2012 show that the majority of bee-kill incidents reported in Canada occurred in 2012, and most came from one province (Ontario), where many beekeepers are hobbyists. Most interestingly, for the six “moderate” to “major” incidents attributed to neonics that year, three times as many were attributed to other pesticides.
With bee death data providing little support for its opposition to neonics, HealthCanada issued an out-of-the-blue decision (likely driven by politics) to phase out use of the neonic Imidacloprid, based on the pesticide’s supposed threat to aquatic invertebrates. Worse, it did so despite a recently published review of over 100 studies concluding that neonic run-off had not been shown to pose any hazards to aquatic life.
Thus, despite any actual evidence of real-world harm, Canada will now phase out one important neonic – and then use that decision to trigger “special reviews” of other neonicotinoid pesticides in widespread agricultural use. That means two more neonics, Clothianidin and Thiamethoxam, will now be subjected to ongoing “re-registration” reviews, plus a periodic review, plus a “special review” that has no defined time limit for completion.
Agricultural needs, to address insect infestations, crop losses and rising consumer costs for canola oil and other products, appear to play little role in the approval and re-approval process. Nor does the absence of alternative pesticides, or the fact that options that might still be available actually are harmful to bees and/or aquatic life.
US EPA Actions Troubling
All this suggests that there is ample reason to worry about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s own susceptibilities to foreign influence, and its own inbred inclinations when it comes to politics versus science in regulating neonic pesticides.
One of EPA’s very first decisions was to ban DDT in 1972. Administrator William Ruckelshaus’s own scientific commission had concluded that the pesticide was not carcinogenic or otherwise harmful to humans, and posed few risks to wildlife if used properly. Ruckelshaus had not attended a single minute of the six-month review and had not read a single page of its voluminous report. He later said he had a political problem, engineered by the Environmental Defense Fund, and solved it with the ban.
The decision set a bad precedent. Onward to the fall of 2014, when EPA took the unusual step of issuing a study/memorandum contending that neonic pesticides were ineffective in controlling soy crop pests and did not contribute appreciably to increasing soy yields. Many suspected the memo was intended to lay a foundation for preventing soybean farmers from using neonics.
The soy study/memorandum was assailed and refuted by scientists who had better data and repudiated by the US Department of Agriculture. Since then, EPA has issued none of the promised “further studies” of neonic efficacy for other crops. But neither did it withdraw or cancel its embarrassing 2014 soy efficacy memorandum.
Then, in the spring of 2015, EPA issued its preliminary assessment of pollinator risk for the neonic, Imidacloprid. The assessment essentially exonerated neonic seed-treatment applications, especially neonic use on corn crops, as posing virtually no risk to bees.
However, EPA singled out neonic applications for cotton and citrus crops as potentially dangerous to bees. The action essentially throws these crops and their producers under the bus, without considering the unique pest problems that make neonics indispensable to their continued viability in the United States. For example, lemon, orange, and grapefruit trees are being decimated by “citrus greening” or HLB disease, and neonics are the only solution found thus far to kill psyllids that spread the disease.
Nor did EPA take into account the peculiar circumstances and methods of neonic applications to these two crops that account for the higher pesticide concentrations the agency noted.
Hope on the Horizon
Fortunately, President-Elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to replace Gina McCarthy at EPA suggests that science may yet prevail on neonics and other important matters. Indeed, the new Trump administration-in-the-making has already signaled healthy skepticism about activist and regulator claims, and concern about the consequences of their policy prescriptions.
These latest EU, Canadian, and EPA actions offer important lessons for future pesticide regulation.
* Stick to risk-based standards embedded in U.S. legislation, and consciously avoid any drift toward the EU’s “precautionary principle.” That infinitely malleable guideline says chemicals should be restricted or banned if there is any suggestion that they could be harmful, even if a link cannot be proven.
The supposed principle looks only at often-inflated risks from using chemicals – never at the risks of not using them, and never at risks that could be reduced or eliminated by using the chemicals.
* Stick to the science. Don’t let agenda-driven activists insinuate evaluation standards that would exclude the best and most relevant available data. Revise or eliminate standards, policies, and regulations that were based on less than honest, robust, defensible, replicable, real-world data and analyses – and on full consideration of costs and benefits of using (or not using) available chemicals.
* Seek solutions that balance the interests of agricultural producers, consumers, and the environment, since one side of an argument rarely has a monopoly on merit.
* To the greatest extent possible, avoid politically determined outcomes. Science usually provides them scant support.
* This might also mean granting greater decision-making authority to the states, so that they can assess risks, costs, and benefits based on their own expertise, with closer proximity to state issues, and lower likelihood of being pressured by national activist campaigns.
This election was about “draining the swamp” and changing the way Washington works. Neonics and other EPA actions would be a good place to begin.