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Neonicotinoids: Poison Is Big Business

Bee and flowers

There is an environmental stain spreading across the United States and around the globe –– the result of habitual applications of systemic neonicotinoid insecticides used widely for both food production and home landscaping.

Making and selling these products is a robust multi-billion dollar business for a handful of international corporations. These companies have the stamp of approval of U.S. regulatory agencies. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is slowly re-evaluating the conditional consents for use it bestowed on these pesticides over the past two decades.

Those profiting from the marketing of “neonics” say they are amazingly popular because they are amazingly effective at killing the insect pests they were designed for. They say they are amazingly efficient because they can be sprayed on plants, poured directly into the soil, and used as a coating on seeds which then carry the active ingredients up throughout the plants as they grow, permeating the stalk, leaves, and even the pollen and of all vegetation so treated.

But these pesticides are also toxic to other insects and larger organisms at doses now turning up in soil and water according to a growing pile of scientific studies which found that neonics tend to persist and build up over time with repeated use. Among the victims these studies list are bees, birds, earthworms, and marine and amphibious organisms.

You can hear the whistles blowing everywhere as environmentalists and independent scientists point to evidence that neonicotinoid pesticides are eating holes in the bottom of the ecological food chain –– the natural systems that 7 billion human beings depend on today and that 9 billion will depend on by 2050 if population expansion continues as projected. It’s not yet clear how high up the food chain the damage extends as studies on rats and mice and human blood now also show troubling signs of potential neonicotinoid contamination.

Ironically, the pressure of population growth serves as a convenient argument for economic interests dependent on continued use of these pesticides, which they claim are necessary for agricultural sustainability.

For a long time there has been a notion abroad that government regulation is an overwhelming impediment to widely shared economic prosperity in the United States. That continues to be the bedrock message of corporate profiteers and conservative word-slingers. There’s also a minimalist degree of implied logic behind it. There are always examples of government regulatory actions that have slowed down or blocked eager business interests rushing to market new products and services that might produce new jobs as well as make money for entrepreneurs.

Capitalism and free enterprise generates a lot of stuff. Not all of it is healthy or safe or even necessary, although necessity is not always a relevant requirement, which is why the cautionary Latin phrase Caveat Emptor (let the buyer beware) has also been around for so long.

But in an increasingly complex world, a buyer often needs an added measure of protection, which is what a government like our own was created for, as suggested in the Declaration of Independence which lists “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” among the inalienable rights of the people, buyers included, and in the Constitution’s preamble which declares it the government’s duty to “promote the general welfare” of citizens.

Today, there is a lot of evidence that due to inadequate, under-funded, under-staffed agencies and legislatively proscribed rules and political pressures, it is in fact the regulators who are overwhelmed and impeded and that those responsible for safeguarding the public’s exposure to avoidable risks are not always able to deliver the effective regulation citizens can rely on.

The year’s late recall of automobiles by General Motors, Toyota, and others was a whopping illustration that dangerous stuff can slip past regulators. Another one, less widely recognized, is the impact of massive quantities and uncountable combinations of chemicals that pervade the environment today, many of them approved for commercial use without any independent safety testing at all. They are used not just in agriculture but in food processing, pharmaceutical manufacturing, energy generation, and virtually all the other productive economic activities that characterize modern times.

Chemical cocktails to which vast numbers of people are exposed, by skin contact, inhalation, and simply by ingestion of three meals a day, are a fact of life, and not in a good way.

So some new things now appear self-evident. It seems well beyond reasonable doubt that human activities change our environment and even our climate, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. As our populations grow, we ourselves are shaping unnecessary threats to our own health and safety. Neonicotinoid insecticides may be a big one.