USDA Shuts Down Data Collection on Honey Bees
“The number of honey bee hives in the U.S. dropped from about six million in 1947 to just 2.4 million in 2008, with 2018 being the worst year on record for hive loss.”
(Beyond Pesticides) The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced, on Saturday, July 6 that it would suspend indefinitely the data collection for its Honey Bee Colonies survey and report. The move came, tellingly, less than three weeks after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) once again approved “emergency” uses of the pesticidesulfoxaflor, a bee-killing compound similar to the notorious neonicotinoids, insecticides that contribute significantly to the phenomena of pollinator collapse (“colony collapse disorder”) and massive insect loss (“insect apocalypse”) that are underway worldwide.
Sulfoxaflor is one of the many toxic pesticides that threaten honey bees, which are critical pollinators responsible for one-third of the food we humans consume. Permitting its use and then ceasing to collect and report data on the status of honey bees that are likely to be impacted is not only a recipe for kneecapping the study of bee decline and imperiling the food supply, but also, another example of the corruption for which this administration is infamous. As The Huffington Post reported, “Critics say the USDA’s move is the latest evidence of the Trump administration’s war on science, and its goal of suppressing information about serious environmental harms increasing under Donald Trump’s presidency.” Union of Concerned Scientists economist Rebecca Boehm opined to CNN, “This is yet another example of the Trump administration systematically undermining federal research on food safety, farm productivity and the public interest writ large.”
The USDA survey and report had been conducted annually since 2015, through its National Agricultural Statistics Service, to help scientists, farmers, and ultimately, policymakers, understand what has been happening to these pollinators and how to address the crisis. As Common Dreams identifies, “The number of honey bee hives in the U.S. dropped from about six million in 1947 to just 2.4 million in 2008, with 2018 being the worst year on record for hive loss. Beekeepers reported last year that 40 percent of honey bee hives had collapsed, due to a combination of factors including the use of pesticides.”
In 2015, EPA’s unconditional 2013 registration of sulfoxaflor was challenged by plaintiff beekeepers, and overturned by the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on the basis of EPA’s having approved use of the compound absent reliable studies on the pesticide’s impacts on honey bee colonies. But in 2016, sulfoxaflor’s registration was amended to proscribe use on crops such as sorghum and cotton, which attract bees. Yet EPA regularly uses an “emergency exemption” rule (authorized under Section 18 of FIFRA, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act) to act around such restrictions. In June, as mentioned above, EPA permitted “emergency” uses of sulfoxaflor on cotton and sorghum crops, which could affect as many as 14 million acres. As of 2017, EPA had granted 78 “emergency” exemptions for sulfoxaflor — a pesticide that EPA itself concluded is highly toxic to bees. In 2018, EPA approved treatment of 16.2 million acres with sulfoxaflor under the “emergency” exemption.
The Center for Biological Diversity provides important context for the June exemption: “The approval includes 2019 crops of cotton and sorghum in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Ten of the 11 states have been granted the approvals for at least four consecutive years for the same ‘emergency.’ Five have been given approvals for at least six consecutive years. ‘The only emergency here is the Trump EPA’s reckless approval of this dangerous bee-killing pesticide,’ said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center for Biological Diversity. ‘It’s sickening that even amid the current insect apocalypse, the EPA’s priority is protecting pesticide industry profits.’” She added, “This administration has been grossly abusing this exemption to allow the use of this one pesticide called sulfoxaflor on a vast acreage year after year.”
EPA’s statement announcing this most recent exemption says, “Pollinator protection efforts remain critical, even under emergency conditions. For each emergency exemption, mitigation measures were put in place to minimize exposure and reduce the potential for unreasonable risks to the environment. The approvals include advisory guidance for protecting bees, and users must also follow all existing EPA guidance for pollinator protection.” The EPA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has recognized the misuse of FIFRA Section 18, and introduced some reality about EPA’s actual commitment to pollinator protection when it wrote in 2018 that EPA “does not have outcome measures in place to determine how well the emergency exemption process maintains human health and environmental safeguards.”
The OIG also noted that, “The program office also does not have comprehensive internal controls to manage the emergency exemption data it collects,” and “OPP [Office of Pesticide Programs] does not consistently communicate emergency exemption information with its stakeholders.” Beyond Pesticides added: “Section 18 is intended to be utilized for unanticipated, urgent, and short-lived pest situations. Instead, it is harnessed as an effective, chronic workaround [of] FIFRA registration and appropriate limits of use.”
Beyond Pesticides opposes the current misuse of Section 18 of FIFRA. During the past decade, Beyond Pesticides’ monitoring of the situation has noticed increasing numbers of state requests for Section 18 exemptions to control a variety of resistant weed and insect pests. Exemptions are frequently approved for such requests. Of course, herbicide-resistant weeds and organisms have proliferated across the U.S. in the last 10 years as a predictable consequence of pesticide use. The argument has been made that such sequelae hardly constitute an “emergency.”
The problems of pesticide-induced impacts — on the health of pollinators, humans, and other organisms; the environmental toxicity and harm that pesticides cause; and the serious and emergent issue of resistance — call out for a real fix: adoption of organic land management practices in the agricultural sector. Such practices can prevent disease and infestation, and are a long-term, sustainable approach that would end reliance on chemically intensive controls that exacerbate the problems that are currently the “easy” remedy to which most farming operations turn.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.