How pesticides are killing the bees

Story highlights

  • Bees are dying at an alarming rate; even the White House acknowledged the dire situation
  • David Schubert: Bees are dying from some of the pesticides that are found in our human food supply

David Schubert is professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)We love our bees. They make honey and pollinate our flowers and crops.

But bees are dying at an alarming rate. Even the White House acknowledged the dire situation and recently released a task force report about it.
While the report acknowledges that pesticides are involved in the demise of bees, it could have discussed more how for the first time in the history of agriculture the same chemicals are inside not only the pollen that bees consume but the foods we eat.
    Recent data published in Science, Nature and other scientific journals show that bees are dying from some of the pesticides that are found in our food supply.
    One of these groups of chemical insecticides is the neonicotinoids that are similar in structure to nicotine and poison the nervous system. The exposure of bees and people to neonicotinoids has increased enormously since it was discovered that by coating seeds with them the plants systemically take up the insecticide and distribute it to all parts of the plant and kill insects that eat the plant. They are used on about 80% of commercial food crops in the United States, are found in pollen, honey and other foods, and are exceptionally resilient in the environment.
    David Schubert
    The other is glyphosate, the active ingredient in most herbicides. Glyphosate not only kills weeds, it also kills many of the beneficial kinds of bacteria that are found in the guts of bees, dogs and humans. These bacteria are an integral part of our body and play major roles in both physical and mental health. The World Health Organization has declared glyphosate a probable carcinogen. Because glyphosate is required for the production of most genetically modified, or GM, crops, its use has increased a lot since the introduction of these crops about 20 years ago.
    Neonicotinoids are banned in Europe. It has been documented that the systemic treatment of some plants by seed coating is ineffective in preventing insect predation.
    Is our government doing its best to protect our health, as well as the busy pollinators?
    Two recent books say that the responsible agencies -- the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency -- do not independently safety test pesticides or GM crops before their introduction.
    "Altered Genes, Twisted Truth," by Steve Druker, details how FDA administrators often disregarded the advice of their scientists and hardly questioned the fact that most GM crops require the use of herbicides in order to work properly. Herbicides used on GM crops are food additives, because they must be in the plant to be effective. It is the FDA's mandate to test additives that are found in food that are potentially unsafe, which should include things like glyphosate and neonicotinoids. However, as Druker documents, the FDA shrugs responsibility for GM food safety.
    The book about the EPA, "Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA," by Evaggelos Vallianatos, carefully documents how the agency is beholden to large agricultural chemical companies. For example, although it is now well documented that bees are dying due to long-term exposures to pesticides, the EPA has only requested that producers do short-term toxicity studies. Therefore, unless the chemical kills the bee outright, its use will be allowed.
    Since the science has become clear that pollen containing agricultural chemicals is contributing to the death of bees, what are these same chemicals in our food doing to us?
    In the absence of proper safety tests, this is a difficult question to answer. But there is a striking correlation between the decline of the bee population, which was first widely noted in the late 1990s -- soon after the introduction of neonicotinoids and glyphosate resistant crops -- and an increase in the relative frequency of several human diseases, such as autism and gastrointestinal conditions, in the same time frame.
    Perhaps the dying bees are telling us something about the future of human health. Unless the system of chemical-based agriculture is changed, the chemical exposure of both bees and humans will continue to increase.
    Individuals can demand that their state governments phase out the use of the most dangerous agricultural chemicals. Creating a sustainable and safe food supply is essential for the health and future of both bees and humans.