Yesterday, the Guardian reported the findings of the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, an international group of scientists from 29 countries that conducted a comprehensive assessment over the course of four years. The assessment found that “insecticides have contaminated the environment across the planet so pervasively that global food production is at risk.”
If it sounds scary, it should. This isn’t some half-baked theory. The Worldwide Integrated Assessment on Systemic Pesticides analyzed every single peer-reviewed scientific paper on neonicotinoids—a specific class of pesticides that you might have heard of if you’ve been following reports on bee decline.
Neonicotinoids are insecticides, and are different from other pesticides because they’re used to treat seeds, and are therefore present at every stage of a plant’s life. This impacts both the environment and all creatures who have contact with those plants.
[Photo: The Guardian]
Here, we present five facts about pesticides. The truth ain’t pretty:
1. Neonicotinoids are major contributors to worldwide bee decline. Bees are important pollinators that are essential to worldwide food production. Like it or not, we couldn’t exist without bees, because our food supplies would be laughable. Scientist Jean-Marc Bonmatin of the National Centre for Scientific Research in France says that bees fertilize around three-quarters of the world’s crops. Neonicotinoids hit bees a few ways: they harm the bees’ navigation abilities, impede their ability to learn, wreck their immune systems, and generally prevent colony growth.
2. Neonicotinoids are hurting earthworms. Earthworms are incredibly important to worldwide food production. They help break down decaying plant matter and work it into the soil. They also aerate the soil so that plants can develop strong, healthy root systems and grow most of the food we eat. This study found that neonicotinoids harm the worms’ ability to tunnel. In other words, the worms can’t worm properly.
3. Imidacloprid—an insecticide that prevents fleas and other pests in cattle, dogs, and cats—is contaminating water supplies. Why is this important? Because it’s killing dragonflies (which eat mosquitoes), as well as other aquatic life. Declines in these insects also lead to declines in the birds that feed on them, which has an effect on the entire food chain. The study reports, “Overall, a compelling body of evidence has accumulated that clearly demonstrates that the wide-scale use of these persistent, water-soluble chemicals is having widespread, chronic impacts upon global biodiversity and is likely to be having major negative effects on ecosystem services such as pollination that are vital to food security.”
4. These chemicals are everywhere. University of Sussex Professor Dave Goulson says, “The pervasive nature of these chemicals mean they are found everywhere now….If all our soils are toxic, that should really worry us, as soil is crucial to food production.” A rapid uptick in usage of these pesticides, combined with their slow breakdown and ability to be washed from fields into our water table has led to “large-scale contamination.” Let’s get this straight: Harmful insecticides are harming Insects, including bees? (Check.) Our water supply? (Check.) Our soil? (Check.) What’s left?
5. A separate study shows a correlation between pregnant mothers’ airborne pesticide exposure and autism. Hold up. We know what you’re thinking. Correlation is not causation; that is, after all, part of what led to some people thinking that childhood vaccinations cause autism—when science has repeatedly proven that they don’t. But Vox reports that a new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives showed that pregnant mothers living within three quarters of a mile of agricultural fields that were sprayed with certain pesticides had a 60 percent higher chance of having a baby that was diagnosed with some form of autism. While the study didn’t conclude that these pesticides actually cause autism, it did suggest that enough correlation exists that further research is completely warranted and necessary. Note: the study only reached this conclusion about airborne pesticides, not pesticide residue on the produce you buy at the store.
6. Existing data on pesticides is incomplete in several key areas. This isn’t just garden-variety fear of the unknown. The Guardian piece states that most countries haven’t made data public about quantities or locations of pesticides applied. Additionally, no observation of long-term effects has been made. Examinations of specific pesticides have only taken those pesticides into account, not the mix of pesticides to which every creature on this planet is currently exposed, in some form, every day. Also, only very few species have been studied in any depth—there’s very little data on reptile or mammal exposure, for example. There are 25,000 known bee species, and the above information was culled from toxicity studies on just four of those bee species.