NEW YORK: First to Protect Birds, Bees From Neonic Pesticides

spraying oilseed rape field

ALBANY, New York, January 30, 2024 (ENS) – New York Governor Kathy Hochul has signed into law first-in-the-nation legislation to protect birds and bees from toxic neonicotinoid pesticides used on outdoor ornamental plants and turfs, and the seeds of corn, soybeans and wheat. This law is the first in the United States to limit neonicotinoid coating on seeds.

With the Birds and Bees Protection Act, “New York is taking a significant stride in protecting our kids, environment and essential pollinators,” Governor Hochul said. “This law underscores our commitment to fostering a thriving ecosystem while we prioritize sustainable farming and agricultural practices.”

Today, neonicotinoids, neonics for short, are directly sprayed on hundreds of millions of acres of agricultural lands across the country.

Pollinator populations are declining nationwide, and neonic pesticides are a recognized cause. The American bumblebee, once the most common bumblebee species in the United States, has declined by an estimated 89 percent in just the past 20 years, and conservationists have petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for the bumblebee.

Signed just before Christmas, the Birds and Bees Protection Act is a proactive measure to protect pollinators by restricting the use of neonicotinoid pesticides with the active ingredients imidacloprid, thiamethoxam or acetamiprid on or after July 1, 2024.

The law allows time for innovative research on alternatives and the development of more cost-effective products that are less harmful to the environment. After this period, the use of neonicotinoids will be subject to science-based evaluations and waiver provisions to assist farm and agriculture operations in the transition to this new program.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul on a listening tour of farms in New York State, August 2022 (Photo credit unknown)

New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher said, “New York Farm Bureau greatly appreciates Governor Hochul’s leadership in offering thoughtful chapter amendments on the Birds and Bees Protection Act. She sought input from all sides and reached consensus on a balanced approach that ensures farms will have safe risk management tools that they need to grow food for our state.”

But it isn’t only the need to grow and provide healthy food that makes the new law so important to the environment of New York State – many wildlife species are affected by the neonic pesticides too, explained State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, who sponsored the bill in the New York Senate.

“The EPA recently found that neonicotinoid pesticides are driving more than 200 species towards extinction, marking them as the most ecologically destructive pesticides since DDT,” “I’m extremely thankful to the coalition of advocacy groups that helped get our bill across the finish line,” Hoylman-Sigal said.

That coalition includes: the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the New York League of Conservation Voters, the Center for Biological Diversity and many other environmental advocates.

New York Assemblymember Deborah Glick, who represents Manhattan and chairs the Committee on Environmental Conservation, explained that the new law prohibits the sale, distribution or purchasing of corn, soybean or wheat seeds coated or treated with pesticides with the active ingredients clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, or any other neonicotinoid as determined by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation through regulation.

“Pollinators are vital members of healthy ecosystems and our food supply chain. Protecting them by limiting toxins that pose adverse effects and health risks is a critical step forward in our work to stop poisoning the environment and create a healthier New York,” Assemblymember Glick said. “This groundbreaking legislation will help safeguard the vitality of our pollinators while ensuring a healthier environment for all New Yorkers.”

Pollinators contribute millions to New York’s environment and economy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says pollinators provide $344 million worth of pollination services to New York and add $29 billion in value to crop production nationally each year.

The state’s ability to produce crops such as apples, grapes, cherries, onions, pumpkins, and cauliflower relies heavily on the presence of pollinators.

Farmer Laura Colligan, president of the Good Farmers Guild of Western New York and co-owner of Dirt Rich Farm, depends on the bees and other pollinators. “As a vegetable farmer, a wide range of beneficial insects and other bugs are essential to my success, whether it’s bees to pollinate my crops, lacewings to control pests, or earthworms to return nutrients to the soil. Neonicotinoid pollution threatens all of them and, by extension, my livelihood. I’m grateful for Governor Hochul’s leadership on this critical legislation to protect farmers like me across New York State from needless neonicotinoid use.”

New Law Builds on Past Pollinator Protections

New York Corn and Soybean Growers Association Vice President Brad Macauley said, “On a very complicated and consequential issue, Governor Hochul showed great leadership in protecting the agricultural industry while advancing environmental policy. Our association believes strongly in our role as stewards of the environment and following science backed policy. Governor Hochul struck the right balance for our industry and we look forward to continuing to work with the administration on the implementation of the new law to properly protect both our environment and industry.”

Apprentices install new packages of bees at a Harlem rooftop apiary, New York City, 2015 (Photo courtesy New York City Beekeepers Assn)

Environmental organizations across the state are supportive of the new law, which continues work already begun by the Department of Environmental Conservation, DEC, which has restricted the use of many neonics to protect pollinators and state resources.

Last year, DEC took action to limit the unrestricted use of pesticides that can harm bee and other pollinator populations by reclassifying certain products containing the neonic insecticides imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, and acetamiprid as “restricted use” to ensure applications are limited to trained pesticide applicators in specific situations.

The state is home to more than 33,000 farms producing food and beverages in demand across the world.

Governor Hochul’s 2023 State of the State Address and New York State’s Fiscal Year 2024 Budget included strong support and investments aimed at boosting demand for New York agricultural products, bolstering New York’s food supply chain, and ensuring all New Yorkers can produce and access fresh, local foods.

Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter Conservation Program Manager Caitlin Ferrante said, “Using sound science as a backbone for the policies that protect NY’s pollinators, water, and soil health will ensure New York’s communities are safer for generations to come. We thank the governor for her nation-leading action on this crucial bill.”

Natural Resources Defense Council Pollinator Initiative Acting Director Dan Raichel said, “Governor Hochul and the legislature have taken a critical step forward in protecting New York’s food systems, ecosystems, and public health by signing this first-in-the-nation bill. Neonics harm nearly every part of our environment – from the water to the soil to our health – and kill bees and other pollinators, driving down crop production. With the sensible and flexible model outlined in the bill, New York will now lead the country in commonsense regulation to curb the use of these dangerous pesticides.”

Citizens Campaign for the Environment Executive Director Adrienne Esposito said, “We are thrilled and buzzing with excitement! This legislation will leave a legacy of cleaner, safer drinking water and saves our pollinators so that they can continue to pollinate 75 percent of the fruit, nuts and vegetables we eat. As we enjoy a holiday meal which may include pasta, green beans or fruit pies we should thank the bees for their role in providing our food and now we can thank Governor Hochul for her terrific support in signing this bill. Saving the bees is a holiday gift for all New Yorkers.”

What Are Neonics?

In June 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released final biological evaluations confirming that three widely used neonicotinoid insecticides likely harm three-fourths of all endangered plants and animals, including all 39 species of amphibians protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The EPA’s assessments of clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam marked the first time the agency has completed biological evaluations of any neonicotinoids’ harms to the nation’s most imperiled plants and animals.

Species found to be harmed by all three of the neonicotinoids include rusty patched bumblebees, whooping cranes, chinook salmon, northern long-eared bats and orcas.

National Audubon Society Senior Policy Manager Erin McGrath said, “Over the last decade, neonics have come under increasing scrutiny because of their negative impacts on birds, pollinators, other wildlife, and people. Science has shown us that even low doses of neonics can prevent songbirds from orienting themselves for their migration, cause significant weight loss, and interfere with their reproductive success. Due to these impacts, the use of neonicotinoid insecticides should be greatly reduced to help reverse the steep declines observed in many bird populations.”

Neonicotinoids, which are banned in the European Union, are the most popular insecticides in the United States. Hundreds of studies have shown they play a major role in population-level declines of bees, birds, butterflies and freshwater invertebrates. More recent studies are showing they cause harm to mammals as well.

The EPA’s June 2022 biological evaluations found that 67 percent of all endangered species – 1,225 different plants and animal species – are likely to be adversely affected by clothianidin and that the pesticide will likely adversely modify the designated critical habitats of 446 species.

For imidacloprid, 1,445 species, or 79 percent of all endangered plants and animals, are likely to be adversely affected. The pesticide will likely adversely modify the designated critical habitats of 658 endangered species.

Thiamethoxam was found to likely adversely affect1,396 species, or 77 percent of all endangered species. The pesticide will likely adversely modify the designated critical habitats of 644 species.

“We’re in the midst of a heartbreaking extinction crisis and neonicotinoids are playing an outsized role in driving it,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center for Biological Diversity, commenting on the EPA’s assessments. “These deeply troubling findings leave no doubt that these dangerous pesticides are silencing the songs of frogs, the flutter of butterfly wings and the buzz of bees.”

The movement against neonic pesticides is growing. In June 2023, two public health groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, demanding that the agency close a regulatory loophole that has allowed insecticide-coated seeds to proliferate across 150 million acres of cropland in the United States.

The Center for Food Safety and the Pesticide Action Network North America are co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, which pertains to seeds coated in neonicotinoids. The agency regulates only pesticides that are directly sprayed on crops, allowing companies to continue using the toxic coatings.

Featured image: Machine sprays a field of oilseed rape, 2013. (Photo courtesy Chafer Machinery)

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