Apr 30 2015

Neonicotinoids, GMOs, and Colony Collapse Disorder

A new propaganda point has entered the anti-GMO repertoire – that GMOs are killing the honey bees. This claim, like many of their claims, is highly misleading, as the actual cause is incidental to the technology of genetic modification or even its use. This hasn’t stopped headlines like this one from organicconsumers.org: GMOs Are Killing the Bees, Butterflies, Birds and . . . ?

This story follows a common strategy among the intellectually dishonest anti-GMO propaganda machine. The fact is, producing enough food to feed over 7 billion people (and growing) is not easy, and requires intensive high-yield farming. Farming, not surprisingly, is having an impact on the ecosystem. Just cutting down forests to make room for crops can have a huge effect, in addition to displacing native species. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of farming’s effect on the environment is that anytime you want to grow millions or even billions of something, critters will evolve to exploit that food source. Any attempt you make to fight back against those critters will inevitably result in resistance.

We face the same challenge with antibiotics. Crowding into cities, and the growing population of humans meant that bacteria who use humans for their lifecycle exploded, leading to outbreaks and epidemics of infectious diseases. Antibiotics have been a powerful weapon against bacterial infections, but evolution is relentless and has led increasingly to antibiotic resistance among bacteria pathogenic to humans and our livestock. This is a genuine dilemma, as we struggle to come up with new antibiotics, and enforce practices that reduce the emergence of resistance.

As an aside, this does not mean that antibiotics are bad, just that maintaining their effectiveness is challenging. So-called “superbugs” are only super because they are resistant to antibiotics. They are no more harmful than bacteria in the pre-antibiotic era.

There is an exact analogy between this situation with antibiotics and the use of herbicides and insecticides (collectively, “pesticides”) to protect crops. Crowd rows of corn into corn “cities” and increase their population to billions, and those bugs that can eat corn will increase and even adapt to make use of this convenient food source. Further, they will likely evolve around any barrier we try to put in their way.

However, some methods are better than others, just like some antibiotic prescribing practices are better than others. The strategy that has been developed to optimally deal with crop pests is called integrated pest management (IPM). The EPA describes IPM best practices as:

– Identify thresholds for using pesticides, usually set as “economically significant”

– Identify specific pests and use targeted methods against them

– Use pest prevention, like crop rotation, resistant crops, fostering natural predators, and using pest-free rootstock.

– Monitor the level of control and react appropriately. They write:

” Effective, less risky pest controls are chosen first, including highly targeted chemicals, such as pheromones to disrupt pest mating, or mechanical control, such as trapping or weeding. If further monitoring, identifications and action thresholds indicate that less risky controls are not working, then additional pest control methods would be employed, such as targeted spraying of pesticides. Broadcast spraying of non-specific pesticides is a last resort.”

This is similar to antibiotic best practices – only use them when necessary and use targeted antibiotics rather than broad spectrum.

Compliance with IPM best practices is not uniform, and the EPA says that most farms are somewhere on the continuum of IPM, using some but not all methods recommended.

This is all background for the point I alluded to above – problems with growing food, managing pests, limiting our impact on the environment, and compliance with IPM has almost nothing to do with GMO technology itself, or even specific GMO crops. Genetic modification is one tool, a powerful tool, that gives us additional options and has the potential to reduce the impact of massive farming on the environment.

The anti-GMO propaganda machine, however, wants to make GMO the boogeyman and wants to blame all of farming’s ills and challenges on GMOs. This latest story with neonicotinoids and honey bees is a perfect example.

Here is what is happening: There are two studies that are most often referenced to establish the claim that insecticides are killing the bees. The first is a Harvard study showing that neonicotinoids are at least partially responsible for colony collapse disorder.

The second is a recent study which essentially shows that seed producers in the last decade have adopted the practice of treating seeds with neonicotinoids, and this use of insecticides has not been counted in surveys of insecticide use. That is the only real data in the study. However, the authors go on to speculate about why this practice has increased and its impact.

Here is where the tenuous connection to GMOs comes in. Prior to Bt corn, more toxic insecticides were used to prevent corn borers. These insecticides were also broad spectrum. GMO Bt corn replaced the broad spectrum insecticides with the targeted Bt insecticide that is effective against the corn borer but not some other pests. The authors speculate that seed producers are now adding neonicotinoid insecticides to the seeds to fill the holes in pest coverage left by the Bt.

Even if true, this has nothing directly to do with GMOs. The problem (if we accept the conclusions of these two studies) is a violation of IPM. The neonicotinoids are being used for insecticide “insurance,” a practice specifically prohibited by IPM principles. Farmers are supposed to identify pests first, assess their threshold, try to prevent them with crop management, and then use targeted insecticides only if necessary. Apparently this is not the fault of the farmers but the seed companies, who are mostly making seeds available that are treated with the neonicotinoids.

The solution is to simply stop the practice of indiscriminately treating seeds with insecticides in violation of IPM practices.

Ironically, the GMO component to this story is in line with IPM practices. Bt (which is used also by organic farmers) is a much more targeted insecticide than the broad spectrum and more toxic insecticides they replaced. Use of Bt varieties has had a positive impact on the environment.


Basing conclusions on ideology is a dangerous thing. In this case, the anti-GMO crowd wants to blame all ills related to farming on GMOs, so they twist any story into an anti-GMO story. This leads to the wrong conclusion, and therefore the wrong solution (which, of course, is always to ditch GMOs). In fact, coming to the wrong conclusion based upon blinding ideology often leads to the opposite outcome of what is intended. In this case it seems to me that if the anti-GMO crowd got its collective wish, the impact of farming on the environment (assuming we don’t allow millions of people to starve) would be greatly worsened.

If the current evidence is accurate, then it seems we need to limit the use of neonicotinoids in order to minimize their impact on beneficial species, like honey bees. Further, IPM principles should be more generally adhered to, which means curbing and perhaps ending the practice of treating seeds with insecticides. There may be situations, such as farms overwhelmed with pests, where treating seeds is a useful strategy. This should be used according to IPM principles, however, which means that seed producers need to make non-treated seeds available so that every farmer can decide for themselves if treated seeds are appropriate.

Getting rid of Bt varieties, however, is not the solution, because they are not the problem.

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