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By Dr. H. A. (Henk) Tennekes, Buzzworthy Blogs

Systemic pesticides threaten to bring global agriculture to a standstill. Bees, the planet’s No. 1 insect pollinators, are dying at an alarming rate. In parts of China, farmers are already forced to pollinate by hand.

Many believe pests, such as the varroa mite, are at the root of this devastation, but according to my work and building evidence, bees are dying worldwide because of systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids. These nicotine-based poisons are revolutionary because they are placed inside seeds. And, since they are water soluble, they can permeate the entire plant – which is why they are called “systemics.”

Any insect that feeds on the crop slowly dies. The neonicotinoids may seem like an ideal insecticide because application rates are much fewer than the older, topical organophosphates. But, unfortunately, there are catastrophic disadvantages here as well. Any pollinator — such as a bee or butterfly — that collects pollen or nectar from the crop is poisoned.

Neonicotinoids bind irreversibly to critical receptors in the central nervous system of insects. The damage is cumulative, and with every exposure more receptors are blocked. In fact, there may not be a safe level of exposure. Neonicotinoids cause worker bees to seemingly forget to provide food for the larvae in the hive and break down a bee’s navigational abilities.

In 2003, the French Comité Scientifique et Technique concluded that neonicotinoids were responsible for the mass die-off of the bee population in France. In 2008, Germany banned seeds treated with neonicotinoids after beekeepers suffered a severe decline linked to the use of clothianidin in the Baden-Württemberg region of Germany.

The second catastrophic disadvantage of neonicotinoids is their potential to leach. Soil acts as a major sink for the bulk of pesticides used in agriculture and public-health programs. Pesticides may cause problems when they seep out of storage or are washed out of the soil into waterways and groundwater. The chemicals are then diffused through the environment and may affect marine and bird life.

Neonicotinoids are prone to cause such problems because they are not only water soluble but are also quite persistent in soil and water. Not surprisingly, the widely used neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid has now caused major contamination of Dutch surface water.

Ground and surface water contaminated with persistent insecticides cause irreversible damage to non-target insects; the scenario is an environmental disaster in the making. In my book The Systemic Neonicotinoid Insecticides: A Disaster In the Making, I catalog a tragedy of monumental proportions regarding the loss of invertebrates and subsequent losses of the insect-feeding (invertebrate-dependent) bird populations in all environments in the Netherlands. The disappearance can be related to agriculture in general and to the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid in particular, which has contaminated Dutch waters since 2004.

The relationship exists because of the crucial (and catastrophic) disadvantages of neonicotinoid insecticides: the damage to the central nervous system of insects is virtually irreversible and cumulative. There is no safe level of exposure, and even minute quantities can have devastating effects in the long term. They leach into groundwater, contaminate surface water and persist in soil and water, chronically exposing aquatic and terrestrial organisms to their toxins. So, what, in effect, is happening is that these insecticides are creating a toxic landscape in which many beneficial organisms are killed off.

Graham White, an environmental author who keeps bees in the Scottish Borders, recently wrote, “We are witnessing an ecological collapse in all the wildlife that used to live in fields, hedgerows, ponds and streams. All the common species we knew as children are being wiped from the face of the countryside.”

Dr. Henk A. Tennekes, Ph.D., is a toxicologist in the Netherlands. In 1992, he established an independent consultancy for product safety assessment, ETS Experimental Toxicology Services. Dr. Tennekes believes very stringent risk assessment procedures need to be applied when it comes to systemic pesticides. He’s authored The Systemic Insecticides: A Disaster in the Making to warn people about an impending environmental catastrophe. Check out his blog.

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