Pesticides have been used in agriculture for decades, so why is everyone outraged about them now? The anti-pesticide movement started gaining momentum after two major events: first, a new class of pesticides (neonicotinoids, or ‘neonics’) came on the market in the late 1990s. Then, around 2005, beekeepers started noticing a large fraction of their hives dying for an unknown reason, which was given the sufficiently ambiguous term ‘colony collapse disorder’ (aka CCD; I’ll write another post later about why this phrase should be discontinued). Many people, including some scientists, have speculated that these new pesticides are to blame, but there is a lot of information out there to sort through and how this fits into the bigger picture is often overlooked. What it boils down to is a classic story the media loves (villain: neonics; victim: honey bees; heroes: we the people, banning pesticides!). This story is of course far more complicated than just villains, victims and heroes, but that’s easily forgotten when it’s told in such a reductionist way. Although there is far more to it than this blog post can do justice, I hope to at least shed some new light on this increasingly confusing situation.

Multiple interacting factors affect bee health, and toxin exposure is just one of them.

First, a bit of history. Early generation pesticides were far worse than what we have now (think: DDT), acting not only on insects but also bioaccumulating in larger vertebrates where they act as hormone mimics. We have learned a lot from our mistakes and modern pesticides (neonics) are not the best but they are far more specific to pest insects than their predecessors. Just as importantly, new application techniques are constantly being developed which can reduce environmental impacts. Whether the users follow the application instructions, however, is a different issue . . . and a (not so) surprising amount of a pesticide’s environmental impact depends on its proper use (dose, time of day, application method, etc.).

There is (should be?) absolutely no debate that pesticides are harmful to insects; after all, killing insects is precisely what they were designed to do. So, all these scientific papers showing that neonics have toxic effect X on insect Y are kind of annoying. As stated by Chris Connolly in a very well-balanced and insightful review on the risk of insecticides on pollinating insects, “[t]he real question is, or at least should be, which insecticide is the safest for use for a particular need.” Now that pollinators have taken center stage as the victims of one of humanity’s top 10 favourite ways of destroying the planet, there is a popular outcry against neonics, calling for global bans. However, if neonics are banned, the problem the people are fighting to fix will not go away: it will get worse.

If one class of pesticide is banned, there are many others to choose from and farmers are unlikely to all join the organic movement at once (nor should they – there are plenty of worrying things about organic farms as well: short-handled hoe, anyone? Don’t know what that is? It’s a tool that has been banned since the 70s because it causes such debilitating physical problems to the workers. Except on organic farms, because they are not allowed to use herbicides and still be ‘organic.’ But I digress…). With the seasonal variability and risk involved with being a farmer, pesticides will always be a tool in the agro-arsenal. Someone, somewhere, coined the term ‘common-sense farming,’ where farmers go organic when they can, but use pesticides when they must. This provides a nice balance between income security (read: food security) and environmental impact. But if the safer pesticide option is taken away, it will be tempting to reach for the older, less-regulated, broader-spectrum pesticide instead of the neonics.

The Canadian government has recently released a statement proposing a ban on imidacloprid (one member of the neonic family). The media immediately pounced on the story, implying that harm to pollinators is the reason for the ban. In fact, the issue is that imidacloprid levels are persisting in groundwater longer than predicted, so there’s a worry that it could be unexpectedly harmful to aquatic ecosystems. But this doesn’t fit the same villain, victim and hero story that’s already been spun, so of course it was tweaked to fit the bill. What’s more, I have yet to see a story on the ban that accurately assesses the potential impact it could have on farmers.

I am certainly not a ‘fan’ of pesticides. I don’t want this blog post to give anyone that idea. After all, from the rest of my posts it should be clear that I research honey bees and am genuinely looking out for their well-being. It’s what drives me to come in on weekends and stay in the lab until 9:00 pm on a Friday night. But I do support a balance between practicality and environmental consciousness, and the jury is still out to me regarding where exactly we sit on this precarious balance right now. But all I want to convey here is that there’s more to it than meets the eye as seen through the media, and before identifying as an “anti __,” take a good hard look at the motivations in play.