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The Birds and the Bees

I was greatly concerned when I read that news item that the neonicotinoid seed treatments might be causing the decline of bird populations.  I don’t know whether you read the referred paper (http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/toxins/Neonic_FINAL.pdf), which was earnest and detailed.  Unfortunately, it was mostly speculative, as opposed to being based upon field evidence.  The authors themselves, in the section “Incidents [of observed bird poisoning]”, state:

“The monitoring and reporting of bird kills in the US has been very limited in recent years … There have been relatively few reports involving neonicotinoids. This is in part because the acute toxicity of these insecticides is lower than that of the organophosphorous and carbamate insecticides that they replaced.”

That is exactly why the EPA favors neonics, since they kill so fewer birds than previous classes of insecticides!  

Odd, I thought!  Does the American Bird Conservatory know something that the EPA is unaware of?  So as a reality check, I went to the heart of the Corn Belt, where there is the most intense use of neonic-treated seed.   I then determined which species of birds would be most affected by treated seeds.  Obviously, it would be seed-eating species that forage in the bare corn or soy fields as they are being planted (planting generally occurs only once each spring).  These would be large birds such as quail, pheasant, and partridge (the seeds are too large for small birds, and many small birds eat insects, not seed).  I lucked out and found a 2010 report by the Upland Game Bird Study Advisory Committee.  In it, they only mentioned pesticides in passing, suggesting that the use of herbicides suppressed quail populations:

“Fewer weeds in association with cropland are detrimental to the quail population.”

This is the same thing with honey bees and other wildlife—the current fencepost to fencepost monoculture planting of corn and soy has eliminated most of the food sources of pollinators and other wildlife.  And any plant or animal that has the audacity to actually compete with, or to eat any of those cultivated plants is labeled as a “pest,” and killed with pesticides (herbicides or insecticides).  And any bird or beneficial insect (such as honey bees) that depends upon the weed species or benign insects for nourishment thus has its food source eliminated in the process.  Understand that this is an indirect effect due to lack of forage, not due to poisoning from those pesticides.

This is exactly the situation with the Iowa game birds.  You can download the report athttp://www.iowadnr.gov/portals/idnr/uploads/Hunting/upland_report.pdf.  The Committee has tracked the populations of these grain-eating species since 1960, and produced graphs that demonstrate how populations of these birds are closely linked to the amount of farmland dedicated to bird-friendly wheat and oats (which have largely been replaced by corn and soy), and to weather events (partridge benefit from drought, other species are killed by cold winters).  There is no evidence that the declines of these bird populations are due to insecticides!

The same correlations apply to honey bees—the bee population is closely linked to the availability of forage and weather conditions (drought or cold winters are rough on bees).

As for the insect-eating birds, of course their populations will suffer if there are no insects to eat.  But the fact is that the seed treatments are targeted against only those sucking and chewing insects that attack the newly-emerged plants, and have virtually no effect upon insect populations other than those on the individual plants growing from the treated seed—due to the precise targeting, there is no overspray effect, so insects can continue to thrive in any weeds and field borders.  Understand, that farmers will always control insect pest populations—the use of seed treatments replaces far more environmentally-damaging spraying of insecticides (the vast majority of which goes into the environment without ever hitting the actual target insect).

As a second reality check, I figured that the corpses of birds as large as pheasant, quail, and partridge would be quite noticeable if they were to die from pesticide poisoning (they would likely be lying in bare fields immediately after planting, and since there are 160,000 licensed Iowa hunters, those 160,000 pairs of eyes would likely notice).

If you go to the American Bird Conservatory’s website, there is a portal for looking up all incident reports of bird kills.  For many common insecticides, there are reports of thousands of birds being killed.  However, for clothianidin (the most common neonic seed treatment) there is not a single report of a bird kill (check it yourself)!  The reality is that animals are cautious about eating new foods (such as the brightly-dyed treated seeds that may occasionally show up behind the planter once a year).  The strong stimulant effect of the neonicotinoids is unpleasant to birds, and they appear to quickly learn to avoid eating any more of the seed. 

So my two reality checks of the arguments that the neonic seed treatments are actually causing bird deaths or population decline both fail to hold water.  The same for the references to Dr. Tenneke’s studies in the Netherlands, in which bird populations have declined in wildlife preserves as well as in farmland (I’ve corresponded with Dr. Tennekes at length).

So this is what confounds me—here is a group of well-meaning advocates for birds (who doesn’t love birds?) calling for an immediate ban on an insecticide that has had zero on-the-ground reports of bird poisoning, and has replaced the use of insecticides that previously caused many documented bird kills (the situation is nearly identical with honey bees)!  They are calling for a ban based solely upon supposition, without any direct evidence.  And this despite the fact that the seed treatments are considered to be “reduced risk” insecticides because they are designed to be more bird (and bee) friendly than the alternatives!

Ah, the alternatives!  If the farmers were not to use seed-treatment insecticides, they would still need to control the rootworms, cutworms, flea beetles, and aphids.  The insecticides that they would then spray are well documented at causing bird deaths—be careful what you ask for!

Now don’t get me wrong—all pesticides are greatly overused in the U.S., generally applied as crop insurance, rather than in integrated pest management.  Our system needs great improvement, and organic farming shows viable alternative methods.  But I’m talking about immediate reality—the banning of the seed treatments would be devastating to both the birds and the bees in the short term!

I approach this subject through the Big-Picture eyes of a biologist, ecologist, and environmentalist, as opposed to the more tunnel vision view of some activists.  Here is the bottom line:

Every human being on Earth is in competition with all other species for the limited supply of “biologically productive” land upon which we grow our food, fiber, and biofuel crops.  When such land is converted to farmland, the entire ecosystem of that tilled acreage is utterly destroyed (even in organic agriculture)—every herb, shrub, and tree eliminated, and every burrow, log, or other hiding place removed,  and replaced by an artificial ecosystem  of exotic plants grown in monoculture, and again destroyed prior to planting the next season.  The only native species that we do not deny the right to exist are those that do not compete in any way with our crops, and that do not require the habitats or shelter that we destroyed by tilling the land!

As an ecologist/environmentalist, our most pressing problem at the planetary scale is the loss of species (extinction is forever).  The main cause of extinction is habitat conversion into farmland (as well as climate change).  Human demands upon the Earth’s finite ecosystem are growing.  There are only about 4.5 acres of biologically productive land on the surface of the Earth available for each current human inhabitant.  Depending upon the culture’s lifestyle, we use anywhere from 25 acres (U.S.) to as little as 1 acre (Bangladesh) to feed and clothe each person.  Unfortunately for the bee (and many other species), due to human population growth there are over 200,000 additional human mouths to feed every single day—each requiring the conversion of another couple of acres of natural habitat into farmland! 

The obvious problem is human population growth, which is due to two main technologies—the conversion of natural habitat to farmland and reduced infant mortality due to health care.  We are not going to backtrack on either of these—no one wants to go back to hunter-gathering or high infant mortality rates.  Technology got us into this mess, and we must embrace technology to get us out.  Our goal should be to use the most ecologically-friendly technologies.

The practice or organic farming was a great start, with its biodiversity, crop rotation, and independence from synthetic fertilizers and use of integrated pest management.  But its rigid and arbitrary orthodoxy has outlived its usefulness as a large-scale model (plus the concept of “organic farming” has been perverted by corporate agriculture; “certified organic” agribusiness bears little semblance to the ideals of organic farming).

Our goal should be to move ahead by adopting the concept of “agroecology”:

Agroecology is both a science and a set of practices. It was created by the convergence of two scientific disciplines: agronomy and ecology. As a science, agroecology is the “application of ecological science to the study, design and management of sustainable agroecosystems.”   As a set of agricultural practices, agroecology seeks ways to enhance agricultural systems by mimicking natural processes, thus creating beneficial biological interactions and synergies among the components of the agroecosystem. It provides the most favourable soil conditions for plant growth, particularly by managing organic matter and by raising soil biotic activity. The core principles of agroecology include recycling nutrients and energy on the farm, rather than introducing external inputs; integrating crops and livestock; diversifying species and genetic resources in agroecosystems over time and space; and focusing on interactions and productivity across the agricultural system, rather than focusing on individual species. Agroecology is highly knowledge-intensive, based on techniques that are not delivered top-down but developed on the basis of farmers’ knowledge and experimentation.

The above quote was taken from a must-read document for anyone interested in the future of agriculture:http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/food/docs/A-HRC-16-49.pdf

The practices of agroecology allow more latitude than the arbitrary restrictions of “organic” farming, and are much more likely to be embraced by the agricultural community as a whole.  These practices greatly reduce the amounts of pesticides or off-source fertilizers, but do not categorically exclude them.  Nor would agroecology prohibit the use of genetic engineering in the development of, for example, drought- or saline-resistant crops.  Agroecology adopts the best of all worlds, with sustainability and the maximizing of ecological biodiversity as its goals.  Agroecology is especially targeted to help small farmers, but can also be adopted by agribusiness.

Now don’t get me wrong—I’m all for organic farming, and practice it myself in my garden and orchard (although, hard as we try, it is nearly impossible for most beekeepers to qualify for “organic” certification due to unrealistic restrictions).  However, the “all or nothing” restrictive hurdles of meeting organic certification limit its overall environmental impact in agriculture as a whole–less than 1% of U.S. cropland is certified organic.  That means that there would be far greater overall positive environmental impact if the other 99% made even tiny changes towards agroecology (without needed to meet every single detail of “organic” certification).  I’m a Big Picture kind of guy, and am looking for what is best for the environment overall.

I wholeheartedly support organic farming, the American Bird Conservatory, and beekeepers.  But their misinformed calls for the banning of all neonicotinoids or genetically engineered crops is at odds with the larger environmental perspective of lessening the impact of the human population upon the other species on this wondrous planet.

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