by Katherine Paul and Ronnie Cummins
February 14, 2014
Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers
Ronnie Cummins is national and international director of the Organic
"It is ironic to think that
determine his own future
by something so seemingly trivial
choice of an insect spray."
When the honeybees, our most important food pollinators, started
dropping like proverbial flies, scientists scrambled to identify
their killer (or killers).
Attention eventually turned to the
increased use of a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.
Scientists now believe at least some of these pesticides play a
major role in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the ongoing demise of
Who's using them, and for what purpose?
...in the herbicides and pesticides and
seeds they sell to farmers who grow genetically engineered crops.
Crops that eventually end up in our food, or in the feed used to
fatten up animals in factory farms-animals we slaughter for food.
We need bees in order to grow food, or at least some of it. Yet the
food-GMO food, drenched in neonics-we are growing is
It's not just the bees that are dying. Butterfly and bird
populations are in decline, too. And it's not just the
neonicotinoids that are to blame.
Other herbicides and pesticides,
Monsanto's Roundup, used to grow GMO crops-and also used
to contain (kill) weeds in cities and
home gardens-are decimating pollinators, fish and wildlife, and
some would argue, humans, too.
As consumers ask more and more questions about the impact of
foods and crops on our health and environment, we're making smarter
choices about the foods we choose to eat.
Does my child's cereal
contain sugar from genetically engineered beets?
Did that steak on
my dinner plate come from an animal raised on a factory farm, and
fed a diet of Roundup-ready GMO corn, canola, soy or cotton seed?
But we need to look at the bigger picture, too.
That means calling
for an end to the use of Monsanto's Roundup in urban areas, on our
lawns, roadways, schoolyards and parks. It means paying close
attention to the seeds and garden plants we buy for our home
It means asking ourselves,
What can we do to pressure Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, and Dupont's customers, both rural and urban, into
understanding that their widespread, reckless use of neonics and
other toxins is destroying our food, soil, water, air and wildlife?
And what organic, sustainable, non-chemical alternatives exist?
It means asking ourselves,
How do we force food manufacturers to
stop using these poison-drenched GMO crops in their processed food
How do we get through to the politicians who protect the
interests (profits) of pesticide and junk food makers, at the
expense of all else?
Before it's too late?
We do it by making intelligent and ethical buying decisions. By
boycotting the corporations who refuse to hear us. But voting out
the politicians who sell us out to the industry lobbyists who fund
their political campaigns.
We do it by all of the above. Over and over again.
Bee Week of Action just the
February 16 marks the end of a national
'Bee Week of Action'.
This week, more than 27,000 activists, coast
to coast, delivered valentine cards to managers of Home Depot and
Lowe's stores, and handed out bee education leaflets to store
The actions, organized by Friends of the Earth, the Organic
Consumers Association and 10 other groups, focused on pressing
Depot and Lowe's to stop selling garden plants pre-treated with neonicotinoids.
OCA and our allies also collected more than 650,000
signatures on petitions to Home Depot and Lowe's, and sent letters
to the CEOs of both companies.
Home Depot responded this week,
saying that it is "working on" a policy to address neonics. We're
hopeful, that with enough pressure, Home Depot and Lowe's will take
these killers off their shelves and promote organic alternatives.
Our goal this week was to draw attention to the plight of honeybees,
the damage caused by neonics, and the fact that consumers-most of
them unknowingly-contribute to the problem when they purchase plants
that may attract bees, only to kill them.
It's a strong campaign. One that OCA is committed to supporting
until Home Depot and Lowe's end the sales of bee-killing plants.
But the problem is bigger than bees. The use of neonics isn't
limited to garden plants. Neonics aren't the only toxins killing
And bees aren't the only victims of agribusiness's chemical
assault on the environment.
As the bees go, so goes our food
When the honeybees started
dying en masse, the alarm bells went off.
Bees are critical to food production. According to the U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than a quarter of America's
diet relies on pollination by honeybees.
No bees, no food. Or at least, no apples, cherries, onions, celery,
cabbage, and a
long list of others, including almonds and blueberries which,
according to the American Beekeeping Federation, are 90-percent
dependent on bees for pollination.
Estimates are that nearly a third of the honeybee population has
been wiped out since 2006. Once scientists pinpointed neonics as the
likely suspect, more studies were launched.
Under pressure, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
agreed to study the link between at least three types of neonics and
the mass die-off of bees.
Despite the fact that their counterpart in
the EU took the precautionary step of requiring companies to suspend
the use of neonics for at least the next two years, until further
studies could be done, the best the U.S. EPA could come up with was
a requirement that certain neonics carry
As if Monsanto and Bayer and Dow are going to read those labels and
stop selling, and spraying, neonics...
Neonics, more powerful than DDT
Science writer George Monbiot says neonicotinoids are the "new DDT
killing the natural world," 10,000 times more powerful than DDT.
article published in The Guardian, Monbiot skillfully explains
how neonics, when applied to the seeds of crops, remain in the plant
as it grows, killing the insects that eat the plant.
to Pesticide Action Network of North America, the seeds for at least
94 percent of the 92 million acres of corn planted across the U.S.
are treated with neonics).
Other pollinators, including bees,
hoverflies, butterflies, moths, and beetles that feed from the
flowers of the treated crops, absorb enough of the pesticide to
compromise their survival, says Monbiot.
But more disturbing? Monbiot points to studies proving that only a
small percentage of the pesticide used to coat a seed before it's
planted is absorbed by the plant. Some of it blows off into
But more than 90 percent enters the soil,
where it can remain for up to 19 years, causing who knows what
"This is the story you'll keep hearing about these pesticides: we
have gone into it blind," says Monbiot. "Our governments have
approved their use without the faintest idea of what the
consequences are likely to be."
Rounding up the other suspects,
identifying the victims
Neonics are in the spotlight when it comes to bees, but scientists
warn that other chemicals could be responsible, too, including those
used widely in the production of GMO crops.
For instance, there's
Dow's 2,4-D, closely associated with the
infamous Agent Orange
defoliant used in Vietnam. Besides being
to cancer and birth defects in humans, 2,4-D is also
toxic to honeybees.
While the herbicide may not result in the
immediate die-off of bees, scientists report that over time, it
severely impairs their ability to reproduce.
And yet, the USDA is on the verge of
greenlighting Dow's two new 2,-4-D-resistant crops (corn and
soy). If the USDA follows through, experts predict we'll see
anywhere from a 25 - 50-fold
increase in the use of this highly toxic chemical.
Perhaps the most widely used, and most well-known weed-killer in the
It's sprayed on home gardens and on
roadsides. But by far, the single most use for Roundup is on
Monsanto's "Roundup-Ready" corn, soybeans, sugar beets, canola and
Roundup is routinely used along with neonics, which implicates it in
CCD. But its key active ingredient, one linked by numerous studies
to widespread human and environmental health problems, is
According to the latest figures available from the EPA, in 2007, as
much as 185 million pounds of glyphosate was used by U.S. farmers,
double the amount used six years prior.
Since 2007, more GMO crops
have been approved, more acres of GMO crops have been planted.
Glyphosate, too, has been
linked to the die-off of bees. But it's also the prime suspect
in the dramatically
declining population of the monarch butterfly. Roundup kills the
milkweed plant, the main source of food for monarch butterflies.
According to one leading entomologist, the "main culprit" in the
declining population of monarch butterflies is,
corn and soybean crops and herbicides in the USA" which "leads to
the wholesale killing of the monarch's principal food plant, common
For whom the bee tolls
The Monarch butterfly isn't yet on the verge of extinction, and
unlike the honeybee, it isn't critical to our food supply.
that mean we can, or should, dismiss the impact GMO crops has on its
ability to thrive?
We asked Karen Oberhauser, Ph.D, a professor at the University of
Minneapolis and director of the school's Monarch Butterfly Lab. She
said that Monarch's don't, to our knowledge, play a key role in any
ecosystem, unless you count the fact that they provide food for a
lot of birds.
But, she wrote in an email to OCA:
"I would argue that there are both ethical and more selfish reasons
that monarchs deserve our protection.
From an ethical perspective,
just because we have the ability to so alter ecosystems that we can
cause the extinction of species doesn't mean that it is ethical for
us to do so.
Thus, preserving monarchs is the "right" thing to do.
From a selfish perspective, we can learn a great deal about
migration, species interactions, insect population dynamics, and
insect reproduction by studying monarchs.
Monarchs thus have a great
deal to teach us about how the natural world works, and I would
argue that understanding the natural world will benefit us."
When in 1962, Rachel Carson published
Silent Spring, her seminal
work on the impact of chemicals on our environment, she probably
didn't imagine a world in which millions of tons of evermore
powerful chemicals are used not just to eliminate unwanted weeds and
insects, but to grow the majority of the corn, soy, beets and other
crops that are found in more than 80 percent of our processed foods,
and are fed to an equally high percentage of the animals that
eventually enter the human food supply.
But here we are.
Will we change course, and reverse the damage?
we save the bees, birds, butterflies-and ourselves-by driving GMOs,
neonics and Roundup off the market?
And by making the Great
Transition to organic agriculture and gardening, before it's too
Or will we maintain the status quo, on the outside chance that we
humans will be somehow impervious to the decaying state of our