Toxic Addictions

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A study published this week adds further evidence that there is a direct correlation between the decline of honeybee populations and the ongoing use of certain pesticides, namely, neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids share some chemical similarity with nicotine. Like nicotine, they are both toxic and addictive.

They also have a similar trajectory in the media.

Lost Wax: Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax) Artist: Kris Martin

Lost Wax: Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax)
Artist: Kris Martin

Fifty years ago, United States Surgeon General Luther L. Terry M.D. released the first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health. Years of research and thousands of articles definitively related smoking to cancer and bronchitis in humans.

It’s well documented that major tobacco companies knew about the lethal effects of their products on human health for decades, and yet continued to promote their products as beneficial. The science that underpinned health studies was questioned, consumer freedom of choice was touted, dire economic impacts were predicted should smoking be banned. And the effects of an outright ban would indeed have been dire – for the tobacco companies.

So cigarettes remained on the market – but a sea change in their perception had taken place. And while tobacco profits went down (at least in some areas of the world) for a very few tobacco-producing companies, the lowered cost of health care for tobacco-related illness has to be considered an overall economic gain for the vast majority of humans, smokers and non-smokers alike.

And so to the makers of neonicotinoid insecticides, which have been around since the 1980s, but only really gained widespread use in the 1990s.

Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax) Artist: Kris Martin

Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax)
Artist: Kris Martin

The European Union banned the use of some of these insecticides for a period of two years to see whether a ban would have any positive effect on declining honeybee populations in Europe. The United States has hesitated, citing a lack of evidence between bee declines and insecticides.

Insecticide manufacturers, having long claimed that insecticides couldn’t possibly be the sole cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, have also been warning of economic and crop collapse should the insecticides – which have only been in use for thirty years of the 10,000+ years of human agriculture – be discontinued.

I found one estimate that the estimated sales turnover for these products has increased ten-fold since their introduction, and they comprise one-quarter of crop control chemicals sold. The more profitable they are, the more resistance there will be to a ban.

Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax) Artist: Kris Martin

Lost Wax: Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax)
Artist: Kris Martin

90% of the U.S. corn crop is currently neonicotinoid-treated, and as a crop protection mechanism, these products have been triumphant. Still, I have yet to see mention of major corn crop failures in the countries where neonicotinoids are banned.

The value of a healthy bee pollination infrastructure is far more difficult to estimate, because we only talk about economic value as it relates to crops and human interaction, not in the larger context of maintaining healthy ecosystems that include – but are not limited to – crop land.
For me, the similarities between neonicotinoids and nicotine are striking.

People started to quit smoking in the years and decades following the 1964 report on tobacco.When will the body of evidence lead to a sea change in public opinion when it comes to our toxic addiction to these insecticides?

 

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