While dithering over neonicotinoids — bee-killing pesticides banned in Europe — Canadian regulators are poised to approve a closely-related poison called flupyradifurone. We call it the new "F"-word.
Like neonics, flupyradifurone attacks the nervous system of insect pests. Both are systemic pesticides that are taken up by plants and move through their tissues into pollen, fruits and seeds. Both are also persistent, sticking around in the environment and, with repeated applications, building up over time.
Health Canada says flupyradifurone may pose a risk to bees, birds, worms, spiders, small mammals and aquatic bugs — familiar words to anyone following Canada's slow-motion review of neonics. When first introduced, neonics were touted as safer for humans than other insecticides. Treating seeds with systemic pesticides instead of spraying crops should be better for the environment, too, right? Wrong. We now know that dust from corn seed treated with neonics is implicated in large-scale bee die-offs during planting season in Ontario and Quebec. Not only is this is alarming in its own right, the dead bees are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, signalling broader ecological consequences.
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A study last year found that 90 per cent of Saskatchewan prairie potholes contained residual neonics in the spring — before farmers planted their fields. In the U.S. Midwest, all 79 samples taken from nine rivers studied contained neonics. Similar results have been found in wetlands, streams and rivers in the southwestern U.S., Georgia and California. As a result, pollinators and other potentially vulnerable non-target organisms are continually and repeatedly exposed. Even low-level neonic exposure can be harmful over the long-term, affecting memory, reproduction rates, feeding behaviour, earthworm tunnelling behaviour and disease susceptibility.
The international Task Force on Systemic Pesticides — an independent group of scientists —analyzed 800 published studies on neonics and released results in June 2014. They concluded that the use of these pesticides is threatening the stability of ecosystems and should be phased out globally. Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) seems to be ignoring the Task Force's stark conclusions. Not only is the PMRA not curtailing Canadian neonic use, it is now preparing to give the green light to a look-alike chemical.
Bayer, the mega-corporation that manufacturers flupyradifurone (and neonics), advertises it as "non-hazardous" to bees. But it's a nerve poison and, though it may not be lethal on contact the way neonics are, it's acutely toxic to bees if ingested. The bigger problem is the threat that both these persistent, systemic pesticides pose to pollinators and ecosystem functioning over the long-term.
And the combined effects of flupyradifurone and the suite of neonics that now contaminate the environment have not been studied. These chemical cousins target the same neuroreceptors, and it is likely that pollinators and other vulnerable non-target species would be exposed to both with cumulative and synergistic effects.
Enough is enough. Rather than rushing to approve flupyradifurone, Canadian regulators should get serious about addressing the concerns with neonics and related pesticides. Please don't "F" the bees.
Let's ban neonics and transition to truly safer alternatives.