GMOs Are Killing the Bees, Butterflies, Birds and . . . ? By Katherine Paul and Ronnie Cummins
“It is ironic to think that man might determine his own future by something so seemingly trivial as the choice of an insect spray.” – Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
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 honeybee colonies.
Who makes the neonicotinoids? Syngenta, Bayer CropSciences and Dow Agrosciences.
Who’s using them, and for what purpose? Companies like Monsanto, Bayer, Dow Agrosciences . . . 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 killing the bees.
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, especially 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 GMO 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 gardens.
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 that 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 products? 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 bee-ginning
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 customers.
The actions, organized by Friends of the Earth, the Organic Consumers Association and 10 other groups, focused on pressing Home 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 bees. 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 warning labels.
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. In an 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. (According 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 surrounding habitats. But more than 90 percent enters the soil, where it can remain for up to 19 years, causing who knows what damage.
“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 linked 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 world is Monsanto’s Roundup. 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 cotton.
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 glyphosate.
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 “herbicide-resistant corn and soybean crops and herbicides in the USA” which “leads to the wholesale killing of the monarch’s principal food plant, common milkweed.”
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. But does 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? Will 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 late?
Or will we maintain the status quo, on the outside chance that we humans will be somehow impervious to the decaying state of our surrounding environment?
Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association.
Ronnie Cummins is national and international director of the Organic Consumers Association.