Unbeknownst to many Americans, the majority of soybean, corn, canola, and sunflower seeds planted in the U.S. are pre-coated with neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics).
The chemicals, which are produced by Bayer and Syngenta, travel systemically through the plants and kill insects that munch on their roots and leaves.1 However, you can’t cover a plant seed with poison and expect it to be free of unintended consequences.
These pesticides are powerful neurotoxins, and have been blamed for decimating populations of non-target wildlife, including important pollinators such as bees and butterflies.
This occurs because the pesticides are taken up through the plant’s vascular system as it grows, and, as a result, the chemical is expressed in the pollen and nectar of the plant.
Certain bird species that feast on insects killed by neonicotinoids have also declined.2
Recent research also reveals that neonics can persist and accumulate in soils, and since they’re water-soluble, they leach into waterways where other types of wildlife may be affected.
As noted in a 2013 scientific review3 of neonicotinoids, “the prophylactic use of broad-spectrum pesticides goes against the long-established principles of integrated pest management, leading to environmental concerns.”
Neonics Provide No Significant Benefits or Gains for Farmers
According to an investigation4 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), published last year, treating soybean seeds with neonicotinoids providesno significant financial or agricultural benefits for farmers.
The researchers also noted there are several other foliar insecticides available that can combat pests as effectively as neonicotinoid seed treatments, with fewer risks.
As reported by Civil Eats,5 other studies suggest reducing the use of pesticides may actually reduce crop losses. The reason for this is because neonic-coated seeds harm beneficial insects that help kill pests naturally,6 thereby making any infestation far worse than it needs to be.
According to one study,7 ecologically-based farming that helps kill soybean aphids without pesticides could save farmers in four states (Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) nearly $240 million in losses each year.
Despite such findings, farmers have very limited ability to avoid neonic-treated seeds.
Farmers Have Limited Ability to Avoid Pesticide-Treated Seeds
For starters, there’s a near-monopoly on seed, with a small number of seed companies ruling the entire industry, leaving farmers with virtually no choices. As reported by Civil Eats:8
“Starting in the 1990s, and continuing in the 2000s, the largest seed and pesticide companies went on a buying spree, gobbling up a large number of smaller seed companies …
The four largest seed companies control nearly 60 percent of the global patented seed market … This fact constrains farmers’ choices.
The consequences are illustrated by the increased ability of seed companies to charge excessively high prices for corn or soybean seed, and to supply pesticide-coated seeds exclusively, which contributes to those prices.”
In addition to simply eliminating untreated seed from their available seed offerings, another way seed companies push farmers into using treated seed is by limiting the crop insurance they can get if they use untreated seed.
If a treated seed crop fails, the farmer will get 100 percent rebate. If they opt for untreated seed, the rebate will only cover 50 to 75 percent of losses.
Wildflowers Often Contain Higher Levels of Neonics Than Nearby Crops
One of the most recent studies9 into neonicotinoids came to a startling discovery: wildflowers growing around the margins of fields are also severely contaminated with neonics, and the concentrations of the toxin in the pollen and nectar of these flowers are sometimes higher than the levels found in the crop itself.
This appears to be a previously overlooked route of exposure for pollinators, and it also means that researchers have likely underestimated the amount of toxins these pollinators are actually exposed to. As noted by the authors:
“Indeed, the large majority (97 percent) of neonicotinoids brought back in pollen to honey bee hives in arable landscapes was from wildflowers, not crops.
Both previous and ongoing field studies have been based on the premise that exposure to neonicotinoids would occur only during the blooming period of flowering crops and that it may be diluted by bees also foraging on untreated wildflowers.
Here, we show that exposure is likely to be higher and more prolonged than currently recognized because of widespread contamination of wild plants growing near treated crops.”
Seed Treatments and Crops Engineered for Insect-Resistance Have Led to Increased Use of Insecticides
The chemical technology industry claims that seed treatments and genetically engineered (GE) insect-resistant crops have dramatically decreased the use of insecticide.
While this may appear true on paper, in reality, neonic-treated seeds and Bt crops have actually led to increased use of insecticides, for three reasons:
- Pest resistance has driven up pesticide use
- Plant-incorporated insecticides are not counted toward usage
- Seed treatments are not counted toward usage
Bt plants are equipped with a gene from the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which produces Bt toxin — a pesticide that breaks open the stomach of certain insects and kills them. Bt plants are engineered to produce this pesticide internally.
One of the touted benefits of GE crops like Bt cotton and Bt corn is reduced pesticide usage, as the plant itself will kill any bug that chews on it. However, just like exaggerated herbicide use has led to the rapid development of resistant superweeds, so have Bt plants led to the emergence of resistant pests.
For example, according to The Times of India,10 farmers in Punjab and Haryana are seeing significant losses of their Bt cotton crops to the whitefly. To address the problem, increasing amounts of pesticides have been applied. This isn’t necessarily a new problem.
In 2002, farmers applied so much pesticide to fend off the whiteflies that soil and groundwater is thought to have been affected, and many now blame the exaggerated use of pesticides on the clustering of cancer cases being detected among those living in India’s cotton belt.
Plant-Incorporated Insecticides Do Not Count Toward Usage and Exposure Data
It’s important to realize that the Bt toxin produced in these Bt crops are NOT included in the data collection on pesticide usage. So to say that Bt crops are promoting less chemical-heavy agriculture is truly a gross misrepresentation of reality, considering the fact that every single cell of the Bt plant contains this insecticide, yet not a drop of it is counted.
The failure to count the toxin inside the plant, and only counting the pesticides applied topically, is a significant loophole that makes Bt plants appear to provide a benefit that in reality simply isn’t true.
In fact, the reality is even worse than that. Topically applied Bt toxin biodegrades in sunlight and can also be washed off. The Bt toxin in these GE plants, on the other hand, does not degrade, nor can it in any way be removed or cleaned off the food because it’s integrated into every cell of the plant.
Moreover, the plant-produced version of the poison is thousands of times more concentrated than the topical spray, so in reality, Bt pesticide exposure has risen exponentially — no matter what the pesticide usage data says.
Seed Treatments Don’t Count Toward Pesticide Use Either
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) also does not include seed treatments in their pesticide usage data, which skews the picture even further. As noted by Civil Eats:11
“The amountused is likely lower, because it takes less insecticide to coat seeds than to spray onto crops, but the area covered (number of acres) is now much greater…
[W]hile about 30 percent of corn acres were treated with insecticides that was sprayed on or applied to the soil, now about 90 percent of corn acres are treated with coated seeds. This exposes more helpful insects like bees and other pollinators to these pesticides.”
Unbelievable! Bt Toxin Is Actually Exempt from Toxicity Requirements
Plant-incorporated pesticides such as Bt (both the protein and its genetic material) are registered with the EPA as a pesticide,12 but the plant itself is not regulated as such. What’s worse, plant-incorporated Bt toxin in Bt soybeans is exemptfrom the requirement of a tolerance level for residues,13 both in the commodity and in the final food product. The final rule on this was issued in February 2014. As noted in the Federal Register:
“Dow AgroSciences LLC submitted a petition to EPA under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), requesting an exemption from the requirement of a tolerance. This regulation eliminates the need to establish a maximum permissible level for residues of Bacillus thuringiensis Cry1F protein in soybean under the FFDCA.”
This is incomprehensible in light of the potential for harm. Originally, Monsanto and the EPA claimed the Bt toxin produced inside the plant would be destroyed in the human digestive system, and therefore pose no health risk. But this was proven false when, in 2011, doctors at Sherbrooke University Hospital in Quebec found Bt-toxin in the blood of 93 percent of pregnant women tested, 80 percent of umbilical blood in their babies, and 67 percent of non-pregnant women.14
The study showed that Bt toxin actually bioaccumulates in your body, and other research15 suggests it may produce a wide variety of immune responses, including elevated IgE and IgG antibodies, typically associated with allergies and infections, and an increase in cytokines, associated with allergic and inflammatory responses.
Pesticidal crystal proteins Cry1Ab and Cry1Ac, two subspecies of the Bt toxin, were tested on cells from the embryonic kidney cell line 293, looking at specific biomarkers indicating cell death. Concentrations ranged from 10 parts per billion (ppb) up to 100 parts per million (ppm). Cry1Ab caused cell death starting at 100 ppm.
Roundup alone was found to cause necrosis (cell death resulting from acute injury) and apoptosis (cellular “suicide” or self-destruction) starting at 50 ppm, which the researchers noted is “far below agricultural dilutions.” According to the authors:
“In these results, we argue that modified Bt toxins are not inert on nontarget human cells, and that they can present combined side effects with other residues of pesticides specific to GM plants.” [Emphasis mine]
Mounting Evidence Shows Neonicotinoids Are Too Toxic to Use
In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released a report17 that ruled neonicotinoid insecticides are essentially “unacceptable” for many crops.
An independent review18 of 800 studies conducted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, published in 2014, concluded that neonicotinoids are gravely harming not only bees and other pollinators, but also birds, earthworms, snails, and other invertebrates. One of the researchers, Jean-Marc Bonmatin with the National Centre for Scientific Research, said:
“The evidence is very clear. We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment equivalent to that posed by organophosphates or DDT… Far from protecting food production, the use of neonicotinoid insecticides is threatening the very infrastructure which enables it.”
In light of the evidence of harm to the food chain which, let us not forget, includes us humans, it’s really incomprehensible that both the EPA and USDA keep taking the side of the chemical industry. Signs of collusion between the chemical industry and these government agencies are everywhere.
Most recently, Jonathan Lundgren, who spent the last 11 years working as an entomologist at the USDA filed a whistleblower complaint against the agency, claiming he’d been harassed and retaliated against after speaking about research showing that neonicotinoids had adverse effects on bees.19,20
After publicly discussing his findings, Lundgren claims “USDA managers blocked publication of his research, barred him from talking to the media, and disrupted operations at the laboratory he oversaw.” The message is clear: if you want to work in science, don’t disrupt commerce. But if we keep going the way we are, what will the future hold? Where do we draw the line when it comes to toxins in our food supply?
I believe we’ve already crossed a threshold and most people are exposed to more toxins than their bodies can handle. Unlabeled GMOs are just one part of the problem, but it’s a significant one when you consider the fact that nearly all processed foods contain one or more genetically engineered ingredients, be it Roundup Ready corn contaminated with glyphosate, or Bt soy, which is essentially a pesticide all in and of itself.
I find it hard to even consider Bt crops a food, because never in the history of humanity has poison been a staple ingredient in our diet.