A Real Buzzkill: Neonicotinoids

pesticide danger signs in a dirt field

So like a global warming skeptic spun off into denial by the latest snowstorm, when I hear about declining bee populations, part of me wonders if some members of the apoidea community shouldn’t self-nominate for a Darwin Award (commemorating “those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it”), if bees are eligible. But another part of me knows that bees deserve respect, gratitude, and, yes, regulatory protection. They behave admirably in non-office environments and contribute more than $24 billion in increased crop value each year to the U.S. economy. So says the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noting that “[a]bout one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination.”
The mysterious drop-off in hives known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) officially ended in 2009, yet bees are still in peril. Last year, beekeepers reported losing about 40 percent of honey bee colonies, twice what is considered “acceptable,” and there is ample evidence that wild pollinators are declining in the U.S. and Europe. Monarch butterfly populations — also pollinators —are plummeting too, and the range of the western (U.S.) bumblebees has shrunk.
The factors implicated in the crisis are investigated by author Nathanael Johnson in one of several recent articles on Grist.org. He cites neonicotinoids and other pesticides, climate change habitat loss, genetically modified crops, and unanticipated breeding consequences. Johnson quotes author Hannah Nordhaus, from The Beekeeper’s Lament (HarperCollins, 2015):

[A] combination of factors is probably responsible — some sort of interaction between pathogens and variables such as nutrition, weather, varroa mites, pesticides, and the modern insults of long-distance beekeeping.

Human habits are bees’ worst enemy, Johnson writes:

Bees may be suffering from the same kind of malnutrition afflicting humans who eat processed junk food. The problem is compounded by the lack of natural forage. Sprawl, monocrops, flawless lawns, weedless gardens, and a general decline in pastureland have made it hard for bees to find a suitable diversity of nectar and pollen sources.

Taking Aim at a Known Culprit: Neonicotinoids
The pesticide class most implicated in the weakening of the pollinator population is neonicotinoids (or “neonics”). Neonics are sprayed as coating on seeds, a more surgical application than spraying mature plants, which harms farmworkers. This attempt to increase farmworker safety has a counterintuitive result: because neonics are used preemptively in seed form, rather than reactively applied when problem insects appear, more of them end up being used. Neonics are big business, accounting for over 25 percent of the global agrochemical market.

Clean Yield takes a very personal interest in bees. Chief Investment Officer Eric Becker is a beekeeper, or was one until a marauding bear made off with his hive. He has vowed to begin anew. Eric is shown here at the 2014 climate march in New York City.

According to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, there is clear documentation that neonics are highly toxic to honey bees and bumblebees and can harm them considerably, even when the bees are exposed to sublethal levels. At the same time, evidence is emerging to challenge neonics’ effectiveness in protecting crops. In October 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency released an analysis concluding that there is little or no increase in soybean yields using most neonic seed treatments, when compared to no pest control at all. And in May of this year, a leaked draft study from Canada’s pesticide regulatory agency found virtually no value in applying neonic coatings to corn as well as soy.
Alarmed by the threat to pollinators, regulators around the world have taken action to eliminate or reduce the use of neonics. In July, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in North America to adopt neonic restrictions. Going forward, farmers will be allowed to use the seeds only on up to half of their corn and soybean fields, unless they provide evidence of pest problems. The European Commission enacted a two-year ban on neonics in 2013, (although the U.K. recently granted an exception for rapeseed growers in a limited area, outraging activists).
In May, the Obama Administration released a National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators. In support of the strategy, the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing restrictions on all highly toxic pesticides to prohibit their use on crops under contracted pollinator services, temporarily halting the approval of new outdoor neonicotinoid pesticide uses, and expediting the re-evaluation neonicotinoids and other pesticides.
Closer to home, Vermont Law School has partnered with the Center for Food Safety’s BEE Protective Campaign to make its campus the first in the country to earn official neonicotinoid-pesticide-free designation. A bill in the state legislature to ban the sale, use, or application of neonics, however, remains in committee.
What’s a Responsible Investor to Do?
For a number of years, Clean Yield has sought to use our capital and expertise to help shrink Big Ag down and promote the uptake of sustainable farming techniques. We have done this through facilitating direct investments in sustainable food enterprises like High Mowing Seeds, Organic Valley, and the Ayers Brook Goat Dairy. We cofounded Slow Money Vermont to gather more capital to such ends. And of course, clients won’t find companies like Bayer or Syngenta, the makers of neonicotinoids, in their portfolios.

Treat a Bee to Dinner
When thinking about next year’s garden, consider consulting the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Plant Lists and Plants for Native Bees, a series of fact sheets with information about choosing the best native plants to help bees, by region.

In 2013, we cosigned an investor letter, organized by colleagues at Green Century Capital Management and Trillium Asset Management, querying 19 food producers and retailers about their perspective on neonics. This year, we co-filed a shareholder proposal at General Mills with As You Sow Foundation, asking for a report on options to prohibit or minimize the use of neonics in its supply chain. Since 2013, General Mills had funded initiatives to increase native habitat for bees, but we felt the $34-billion company could be doing more, as it is certainly no slacker on sustainability matters. Following a number of conversations with the company, we withdrew the proposal after General Mills made additional commitments to support beleaguered pollinator populations. For the first time, General Mills went on record “recogniz[ing] the unique role of neonicotinoid pesticides in pollinator health decline” and supporting the further study outlined in the Administration’s Pollinator Task Force. The company is also extending its partnership with the Xerces Society, working with them to educate growers of key commodities on how to protect and minimize the impacts of neonics and other pesticides on pollinators. In so doing, General Mills has become the first major packaged foods company to improve policies to protect bees and other pollinators from the impacts of pesticides.
Of the other companies investors contacted in 2013, a few — The Home Depot, Whole Foods Market, and Lowe’s -— have taken concrete action. In June 2014, Home Depot announced that it would require suppliers to label all plants treated with neonics and would help suppliers eliminate their use. Whole Foods Market launched standards ranking produce and flowers based on the suppliers’ efforts to protect air, soil, water, and human health; incorporated within these is a system to reward farmers who adopt bee-friendly farming practices and limit the use of bee-harming pesticides. Lowe’s agreed to phase out neonics as suitable alternatives become available, work with suppliers on integrated pest management techniques that reduce pesticide usage, and educate consumers about pollinator health. At Pepsi, a shareholder proposal addressing neonics drew only slim support this year.
Companies have every reason to be paying attention, with public pressure campaigns calling them out by name. The online corporate watchdog group SumOfUs.org, satisfied with the turnarounds at Lowe’s and Home Depot, is now turning its attention to True Value Hardware and Ace Hardware. (SumOfUs’s activities have been rewarded with a lawsuit from Syngenta and a threatened one from Bayer.)
We’ll see more shareholder action on neonics through the 2016 proxy season and will continue to report on developments to readers … and the little, dimwitted home office invaders. Really, this all comes down to keeping them happily buzzing along.
Additional Reading
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, “Honey Bees and Colony Collapse Disorder,” available at:  and White House Fact Sheet: The Economic Challenge Posed By Declining Pollinator Populations.
Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
Why Are Bees Hurting? A Lineup of Suspects,” by Nathanael Johnson, Grist magazine, June 25, 2015.