Donald Trump, hellbent on reversing every decision made by his predecessor, Barack Obama, has decided that no target is too small. To little fanfare, he has put bees in the firing line, lifting a ban on bee-killing pesticides and GMO crops in wildlife refuges.
Perhaps he misread "refuges" and thought the policy referred to refugees. In any event, by reversing the Obama-era policy, more than 50 wildlife refuges across the United States covering a total of 150 million acres are now under threat from GMO crops with their genetically engineered advantages over native wildlife, and pesticides that indiscriminately kill crucial pollinating insects like bees.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, spelled out the stakes when he said: "Industrial agriculture has no place on refuges dedicated to wildlife conservation and protection of some of the most vital and vulnerable species.”
The policy reversal was announced last summer in a Fish and Wildlife Service memorandum, reversing a 2014 Obama policy that enacted a universal ban and was lauded as "a national victory nearly ten years in the making." Four years ago, the National Wildlife Refuge System recognized the potential threat presented by GMOs and certain pesticides to “vital and vulnerable” native species, and detailed its plans to phase out both GMO seeds and the category of pesticide chemicals thought to be contributing to the dramatic decline of crucial bee populations in protected areas.
Some refuges allow for limited agriculture when it's deemed advantageous to the local ecosystem; as a result there are small patches of farmland within wildlife conservation areas. Now, these farms have become the center of the controversy as the Trump administration’s policy seeks to give farmers more freedom to plant what they want. This includes new biotech crops like GM maize and wheat, which have been genetically engineered to be resistant to insects. The GM crops have also been designed to stop weeds, which in this context are the native plants of the wildlife refuges.
The then head of the refuge system during Obama's tenure, Jim Kurth, argued that the use of neonicotinoids, which are one of the most widely used pesticides, led to harm of "non-target" species. Moreover, he told Reuters that wildlife "refuges throughout the country successfully meet wildlife management objectives without" GMO crops and the harmful pesticides they are genetically engineered to withstand.
Additionally, the concern that GMOs also have the potential to colonize wild areas is becoming apparent, although the risk has not been researched enough due to “high research and development costs, market restrictions, and regulatory obstacles to performing field tests.”
The Obama-era policy banned neonicotinoid pesticides, also called neonics, as a result of research revealing that the chemicals were responsible for killing pollinating insects, such as bees. Nathan Donley, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, told Common Dreams that "the more we learn about the toxicity of neonics, the more apparent it is that pretty much any plant with nectar or pollen sprayed with these poisons is unsafe for bees… This important analysis is further proof that it's time to ban all outdoor use of these harmful pesticides on crops."
Based on a comprehensive report proving that neonicotinoid pesticides were harmful to both honeybees and wild bees, the European Union voted last year to ban the use neonics anywhere other than in closed greenhouses. Vytenis Andriukaitis, the European commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said in a statement: "The Commission had proposed these measures months ago, on the basis of the scientific advice from the European Food Safety Authority."
He added, "Bee health remains of paramount importance for me since it concerns biodiversity, food production and the environment."
The U.S. has not only not followed suit, but instead did the exact opposite when the Trump administration announced it was lifting the ban on neonicotinoids the day after California's Department of Pesticide Regulation released a similar risk assessment report that found four neonicotinoids could cause serious harm to pollinators when used on certain crops – including the corn typically grown in refuges. In response to the ban's reversal, Center for Biological Diversity attorney Hannah Connor said:
"Agricultural pesticides, especially bee-killing neonics, have no place on our national wildlife refuges… This huge backward step will harm bees and other pollinators already in steep decline simply to appease pesticide-makers and promote mono-culture farming techniques that trigger increased pesticide use. It's senseless and shameful."
Neonicotinoids are water-soluble and thus easily absorbed by plants, leading to their easy dispersal throughout the ecosystem. They are effective against multiple pests in the long term, and will likely become less toxic to mammals over time. However, research demonstrably shows that neonicotinoids are already responsible for harming bees.
Although the exact mechanism of how this happens is still being determined, scientists suspect that the neonicotinoids overstimulate the bee's neurons, triggering catastrophic cell impairment and shutdowns and, ultimately, causing death.
Bees and pollinating insects are crucial to the ecosystem; without them, plants cannot be fertilized and therefore cannot reproduce. Unless humans develop fantastical, futuristic mini drones to do their job, bees are essential to the environment. According to the Fish and Wildlife memorandum, use of the toxic pesticides will be made on a case-by-case basis, which isn't exactly reassuring.
Just look at the attempted reductions of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Even a cursory check into the biodiversity of this national wildlife monument reveals that it's home to more than 600 types of bees – more than all bee species east of the Mississippi combined. If there were any honest assessment in the case, the preservation of biodiversity among one of the most important animals in the world would be a basis to keep their habitat protected.
The proposed, reduced size of the monuments puts these bee populations at risk and whatever economic benefit may be squeezed from the land pales in value to the genetic diversity that could be lost. Even a strictly utilitarian view of land management would conclude that the habitat is crucial.
Instead, Sheehan of the Fish and Wildlife Service has expressed a belief that the bee-eradicating chemicals and GMO crops are a necessity for farmers to be able to “maximize production” of their crops. Sheehan went on to say in the memorandum: “Normal human expansion in our nation will continue to eliminate wildlife habitats that have previously been relied upon for successful wildlife restoration. Therefore, our professional wildlife managers will need to work more diligently than ever to ensure that those remaining important places have the best available food resources and other important conditions to ensure [wildlife] can persist.”
Defenders of Wildlife was quick to note that populations of game birds like geese and ducks are stable, and show no indication of needing GMO crops as feed. On the contrary, experts on duck and geese populations suggest that the birds need different species of plants to get enough nutrients. Sheehan failed to take into account that as other species die out from starvation, hunters will face increasing competition from wild predators.
In the end of the day, the costs of reversing the Obama-era policy far outweigh any of its trumped up benefits. For bees, and for the rest of us who depend on them, the consequences may be deadly.