Honey bees are a massive global business, responsible for a third of the world’s food production. Honey bees provide $15 billion in added U.S. crop value each year, and as the USDA reports, “About one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination.”
It’s difficult to overstate honey bee significance to the planet’s food security. And since 2006, after the bullrush onset of Colony Collapse Disorder, scientists and beekeepers have looked for a source of blame; a cause to explain millions of abandoned hives and billions of dead bees.
The EU, mainly based on the research of Italian biologist Marco Lodesani, thinks it has fingered the culprit: neonicotinoid pesticides. According to Businessweek, three years of research led Lodesani to a conclusion of toxic poisoning: “Our findings show that the bee colonies are dying off in such large numbers, and that the link is pesticides,” said Lodesani. He added that the ‘pharma’ link, as he calls it, is strong enough to rule out other suspected causes, such as a deadly virus, as a principle cause for colony deaths.”
The European Food Safety Authority (ESFA), took Lodesani’s report and ran with it. As a result, neonicotinoid pesticides are on the brink of European ban. On March 14-15, the EU’s 27 member states will vote on a proposed two-year neonicotinoid ban; ratification will require a majority vote and if passed, the ban will go into effect on July 1. Narrowed down, the neonicotinoid legislation puts three chemicals in the crosshairs: clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam.
The makers of the three pesticides — Syngenta and Bayer CropScience — say the EU is responding in knee-jerk fashion, and label the EFSA report as fundamentally flawed. From a Syngenta release: “Further review has now shown that EFSA based its assessment on unrealistic and excessive seed planting rates between two and four times higher than would be used under modern agricultural practice. Had EFSA used normal sowing rates they would have concluded that the risk to bees is extremely low and that in reality neonicotinoid technology does not damage their health.”
Who is correct? Syngenta and Bayer — or the EFSA and Lodesani? The financial stakes are extremely high: A neonicotinoid ban might cost Europe up to $23 billion over a five year stretch and put 50,000 jobs on the chopping block, according to Businessweek. Europe’s farmer unions, never shy about parking their tractors across from legislative buildings or battling with riot police, are keenly watching the developments.
At present, the proposed ban targets only neonicotinoid pesticide use on crops that are attractive to bees. But Syngenta and Bayer recognize that the proposed legislation is a first-step measure, heavily laden with future intent. If the prohibition of clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam is passed — activist groups will move for a permanent neonicotinoid ban.
Europe’s politicians will pat themselves on the back if a ban is enacted, but beyond the self-congratulations, the questions remain. What about Varroa mites, lack of pollen and nectar supplies, pathogens, and historical bee die-offs before the use of pesticides? The answers appear far more complicated than the research presented by EFSA.
(See related: Honey bee losses defy solitary explanations)
Across the globe, California may be the bellwether location for honey bee significance; and no crop details this better than almonds. California’s 800,000 acres of almonds require 1.6 million bee colonies for pollination services each year (two colonies per acre). Eighty percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California and the 2013 almond crop will likely be worth $3 billion.
For U.S. agriculture and California, the neonicotinoid outcome in Europe may serve as a regulatory road map. The Environmental Protection Agency, currently taking its own look at neonicotinoids, is watching the events play out in Europe. Unless the review process is expedited, EPA’s neonicotinoid findings are expected in 2018.