Birds and bees

To the Editor:

Rooted in gratitude for a good harvest, Thanksgiving is a day of togetherness and feasting for many Americans. It is a time to wipe the dust off Grandma’s delicious recipe cards or to head to the deli and fresh grocery aisles for savory string beans and pumpkin pie. For many, Thanksgiving is the purest and most important holiday of all, unblemished by the commercialism that threatens to tarnish Christmas and other celebrations.

Behind the scenes, however, the cornucopia of foods for which we give thanks is now under siege, in part due to a new and insidious class of insecticides called neonicotinoids or “neonics.” First introduced in the U.S. in 1994, the neonics quickly became the most widely used insecticides on Earth, applied to two-thirds of the world’s croplands. Virtually all the corn in this country is grown from neonic-coated seeds, as are many grains, fruits and vegetables.

Unfortunately, these neonic insecticides are killing bees, butterflies, birds and quite possibly bats and other wildlife. As such, they are a direct threat to our Thanksgiving meal, wiping out the tiny buzzing “field hands” that pollinate hundreds of crops – roughly one-third of the foods we eat. Pollinators play an essential role in our Thanksgiving celebrations – from the squash, sweet potatoes, broccoli and other vegetables to the nuts, pumpkin desserts, apple pies and cranberry sauce.

Even minute amounts of neonics are enough to kill the bees. The neonic coating on a single corn seed can kill more than 80,000 bees. Bees that don’t succumb immediately face other effects: reduced memory and navigation, immune problems, developmental shortcomings and diminished foraging ability. These impairments are as good as death to the parent colony.

Neonics are part of a revolution in seed technology. Neonic seed treatments are a pre-emptive strike; we are blanketing our lands with chemicals even when there is no pest to be found within 100 miles. This is a damaging reversal from integrated pest management, the approach to agriculture that says you monitor for pests, do all you can to prevent pest outbreaks and apply conventional chemicals only as a last resort.

What is really quite extraordinary is that – despite the enormous scale on which they are used – there is scant evidence that neonics are actually increasing agricultural productivity.

The farmers pay for the costly treated seeds; the bee-keepers bring home dead hives; and the birds, butterflies and other wildlife die. The only benefit is to the handful of multinational biotech conglomerates which accrue enormous profits.

Equally absurd is that even though neonics are applied to hundreds of millions of acres in the U.S. – up to 95 percent of those lands via coated seeds – the EPA fails to require any registration of neonic seed treatments or any enforcement in cases of misuse.

Birds don’t take a holiday; nor do bees. Their protection demands that we do away with policies that allow excessive use of ineffective and dangerous pesticides. Closer to home, as we prepare for our celebrations, let’s help save our pollinators by choosing carefully what we put in our shopping baskets and on our plates. We can help grow the market for sustainable, healthy, pesticide-free agriculture and help shrink the market for chemical intensive, neonic-contaminated products. And as we give thanks for the bounty on our tables this Thanksgiving, let’s remember the birds and bees that made it all possible.

Cynthia Palmer

American Bird Conservancy

Washington, D.C.

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