The renowned biologist, writer and ecologist Rachel Carson called for humanity’s responsible action as stewards of the earth, warning that the federal government was part of a problem that may lead to environmental failure. Her book, “Silent Spring,” became a best seller in 1962 and inspired a grassroots movement to protect the environment.1
Carson warned of the deadly impact that a certain insecticide, DDT, would have on insects and wildlife. She contended that its use may result in the death of a vast number of birds and wildlife and ultimately lead to a silent spring devoid of the typical calls of nature. Today, neonicotinoids have become the second silent spring.
Neonicotinoids are a relatively new type of insecticide. Unlike contact pesticides, these chemicals are systemic and water soluble.2 Plants absorb the pesticide into the foliage, flower and sap.3 Commonly called neonics, the toxin works on the central nervous system of the insect,4 causing death and impairing the ability to forage in pollinators.5
Sublethal exposure negatively affects the reproductive capacity of the male insect and may be a possible explanation for the failing honey bee population.6 In addition, only 5% of the active ingredient is absorbed by the plant.7
The remainder of the toxin is dispersed into the environment. Further research8 found this exposure in white-tailed deer resulted in an increased death rate in fawns and a lower reproductive capacity in females.
Neonics responsible for majority of toxicity load
A recent study9 demonstrated America’s agricultural lands are now 48 times more toxic than they were a quarter-century ago. In an assessment of the toxicity load, comparing 1992 through 2014, the researchers found that synthetic insecticide use has shifted from mostly organophosphorus pesticides to a mix of neonicotinoids and pyrethroids.
The rise in toxicity of the agricultural lands was attributed primarily to neonics, representing up to 99% of the total load in 2014.10 While the plants only absorb 5% of the toxin,11 researchers found oral exposure of concern since the toxicity level is relatively high.12
Exposure may occur from the pollen, nectar and guttation water secreted by the plant. Not all the drops of water found on the leaves of plants in the morning is dew. Dew is the formation of droplets of water when cold air meets the warmer plant.
Guttation is the result of physics as the plant moves nutrients and moisture throughout the system. Since the leaves of a plant absorb only a specific amount of water, the extra water evaporates during the daytime. At night, pressure in the root cells forces the excess water out of the leaves.13
One study author points out this rise in environmental toxins matches the decline in pollinator populations, such as bees and butterflies.14 For years scientists have been warning of the dangers of these pesticides; this new study provides a more complete picture of the threat to insect life and wildlife as a whole.
Compounding toxic burden is persistent
The same writer warns neonics stay in the environment for up to 1,000 days,15 which is significantly different than other pesticides that dissipate more quickly.16 National Geographic reports that neonics are used in more than 140 crops in more than 120 countries.17
The combination of widespread use and slow breakdown of neonics contributes to the compounding toxic burden experienced by multiple levels of the environment. As the number of insects have declined, so have the number of birds relying on the insect population for food.
But, as the American Bird Conservancy reports, exposure to contaminated insects is not the only factor reducing the bird population. The organization commissioned a report to review 200 studies on neonics in the industry, evaluating the risk to birds and aquatic systems. Cynthia Palmer, ABC Pesticides program manager, said the results were frightening:18
“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 — called imidacloprid — can fatally poison a bird. And as little as 1/10th of a neonicotinoid-coated corn seed per day during egg-laying season is all that is needed to affect reproduction.”
High risk, but little reward
Despite years of documenting the effects on the environment and the long-term effects this will have on humanity, the use of damaging insecticides has continued. Not only that, farmers are not experiencing great benefits from the practice. Researchers who conducted a study published in 201819 compared the results of those using traditional regenerative farming to those of current monoculture practices.
They reviewed pest management, soil conservation and farmer profitability and found that pests were 10 times more abundant in corn fields treated with insecticides than on regenerative farms that did not use insecticides or pesticides. Although regenerative fields had 29% lower production, they yielded 78% higher profits, which appeared to be correlated with organic matter in the soil.
A 2016 review of seed coating by the Center for Food Safety explains that20 “coating crop seeds with these insecticides does not provide economic benefits to the farmers in many crop planting contexts.” When the European Union prohibited use of the insecticides in 2013, there was no production decline. In 2014 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found:21
“The Biological and Economic Analysis Division (BEAD) analyzed the use of the nitroguanidine neonicotinoid seed treatments for insect control in United States soybean production. Imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, and clothianidin are applied to seeds at mostly downstream seed treating facilities prior to distribution to growers prior to planting.
BEAD concludes that these seed treatments provide negligible overall benefits to soybean production in most situations. Published data indicate that in most cases there is no difference in soybean yield when soybean seed was treated with neonicotinoids versus not receiving any insect control treatment.”
The U.S. government has failed to take action against the use of these toxins and has stalled a review of neonics. In addition, the Fish and Wildlife Service reversed a ban placed on the use of neonics in wildlife refuges that was enacted during Obama’s presidency.22
The Guardian reports that although there is some support in Congress for change, one of the top contributors to the chairman of the House agriculture committee is Bayer, maker of one of the most popular neonics.23
As the insects go, so goes humanity
One recent study reported that more than 40% of all insect species are threatened with extinction within the next few decades.24 Another reports25 that 322 species of vertebrates have become extinct since 1500, and 67% of invertebrates show a 45% decline in population.
The loss of insect populations comes at a high cost. While the loss of mosquitoes and fleas may not bother many people, it’s important to remember that 80% of plant life requires the physical transfer of pollen in order to reproduce.26 Without insects, most plants on the planet would die off, directly affecting your diet and nutrition.
This has a domino effect since many mammals and birds also require plant pollination for food, or for the insects to be available for food. Insects also are part of the decomposition of organic material, which means that without insects the world would slowly fill up with dead plants and animals.
Two entomologists from Cornell University tallied how much insects mean to the U.S. economy, and found that insects help deliver $ 57 billion a year. Native insects are food for wildlife, supporting a $ 50 billion recreational industry, in addition to crop pollination and saving ranchers $ 380 million a year. They believe these are extremely conservative estimates and comment:27
“A lot of value is added to the economy by insects, but most people just don’t realize it. When considering the allocation of conservation resources or the management of natural habitat, we must think about this value to make sure that insects can continue to do their beneficial work.
We know how to repair roads and other components of our physical infrastructure, but our biological infrastructure is vulnerable to degradation, too. If we do not take care of it, it will break down and could seriously impact the economy. In fact, in many places — crop pollination, for example — the cracks in the infrastructure are already showing.”
In one study28 researchers report their belief that the reason monocultures attract a higher number of insect pests is because plant diversity naturally provides sustainable pest control. When an insect has a large food supply from which to draw in one place, it doesn’t leave. Monoculture crops are like a buffet, whereas plant diversity does not offer a large amount of food in one place for one type of insect.
Treated seeds increase insecticides and boost business
Despite mounting data over the past decade that agricultural practices are decimating the insect population and neonics are not beneficial to farmers, many of the soybean, corn, canola and sunflower seeds planted in the U.S. are pre-coated with neonics.29
Laboratory analysis has found neonics in 91% of foods tested, with the highest residues on cherry tomatoes, yellow squash and honeydew melons.30 Since the insecticide is water soluble, it’s not surprising researchers31 have found neonics are affecting the insect population not only in agriculture but also in the wildflowers growing on the margin of agricultural fields.
The original argument for genetically-engineered, insect-resistant crops was to dramatically reduce the use of insecticides. However, the use of insecticides has in fact risen since the introduction of GE crops. Concentrations of the insecticide in the pollen and nectar of wildflowers are sometimes higher than those found in the crops.32
In a study published in 2012,33 researchers found the use of GE crops increased the overall use of pesticides by 404 million pounds since the first GE corn seed was introduced in 1996.
The report produced by Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., then a research professor at Washington State University, showed insecticide use dropped 28% in the initial years but once again is on the rise. Benbrook said in an interview:34
“Things are getting worse, fast. In order to deal with rapidly spreading resistant weeds, farmers are being forced to expand use of older, higher-risk herbicides. To stop corn and cotton insects from developing resistance to Bt, farmers planting Bt crops are being asked to spray the insecticides that Bt corn and cotton were designed to displace.”
In spite of continued evidence that pesticides and insecticides are harming human health and the environment, large agribusinesses continue to profit from the sale of toxic chemicals and toxic coated seeds.
Regenerative farmers profit the land and their pocketbooks
As research has demonstrated, regenerative farming improves biodiversity of the soil, does not harm the environment and increases farmers’ net profits. Farmers who use regenerative practices are rebuilding the topsoil, protecting water sources and offering you optimal nutrition.
Food produced and raised on regenerative farms minimizes your risk of foodborne illnesses and helps restore local ecology. Consider converting part of your yard into an edible landscape using organic and regenerative methods.
If you’re not into growing your own food, choose fresh organic produce from local growers and seek out farmers who can provide organic, grass fed beef, poultry and dairy products.
Certifications to look for that indicate you’re purchasing the highest quality foods grown according to regenerative principles include Demeter (biodynamic certification) and the American Grassfed Association (AGA) certification.