The bees and the birds
September 12, 2019 7:08 PM   Subscribe

Neonicotinoid pesticides have been shown to threaten bees and other pollinators, but a new study shows they can also harm seed-eating birds.
posted by blue shadows (14 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Of course it does.
posted by kinnakeet at 8:06 PM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Are we going to change anything as a result? Of course not.
posted by aubilenon at 8:32 PM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Several of the nursery companies we get plants from at my job proudly refuse to spray neonicotinoids, even some of the non-organic places. But that's here in CA. Things are changing, but until it's nursery companies in GA and TX and KA as well, yeah we've got a ways to go.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 8:34 PM on September 12, 2019

Unfortunately, a lot of farmers likely regard killing or sickening seed eating birds as a big plus.
posted by tavella at 9:04 PM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Here is a link to the damn paper: A neonicotinoid insecticide reduces fueling and delays migration in songbirds
Hazardous delays
Neonicotinoids are a widely used group of pesticides that have been shown to have negative impacts on an increasing number of species, most notably pollinators. Eng et al. tested how exposure to these compounds influenced the behavior of a migrating songbird. Ingestion of field-realistic levels of neonicotinoid insecticides reduced feeding and accumulation of body mass and fat stores, which led to delayed departure from stopover sites. Such delays can lead to reduced migration survival and decreased reproductive success and therefore have the potential to impose population-level impacts.

Neonicotinoids are neurotoxic insecticides widely used as seed treatments, but little is known of their effects on migrating birds that forage in agricultural areas. We tracked the migratory movements of imidacloprid-exposed songbirds at a landscape scale using a combination of experimental dosing and automated radio telemetry. Ingestion of field-realistic quantities of imidacloprid (1.2 or 3.9 milligrams per kilogram body mass) by white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) during migratory stopover caused a rapid reduction in food consumption, mass, and fat and significantly affected their probability of departure. Birds in the high-dose treatment stayed a median of 3.5 days longer at the site of capture after exposure as compared with controls, likely to regain fuel stores or recover from intoxication. Migration delays can carry over to affect survival and reproduction; thus, these results confirm a link between sublethal pesticide exposure and adverse outcomes for migratory bird populations.
If you would like a copy of the full text of the paper for the purpose of this academic coversation we are presently having, please feel free to memail me with an email address I can send it to and a promise not to post it somewhere.

There is a lot of background to the global conversation about neonicotinoids in agronomy and regulatory philosophy that journalists basically always elide in favor of the kind of cheap outrage that gets clicks these days. While opposition to monoculture has been a popular way to take the complex discipline of agronomy and distil it down to a pithy platitude that is as simple and easy to understand as it is wrong, we should be better than that here. Farming is the art of growing useful plants to the exclusion of non-useful plants, and its a lot more efficient to do in a lot of very important ways when you are only growing one plant at a time. In the modern world with 7 billion mouths going on 10 billion, blind opposition to monoculture is pretty precisely synonymous with support for famine. However, monoculture does come with a number of important challenges that farmers need to overcome, particularly the challenge of growing a lot of tasty plants all next to each other in such a way as to create a very attractive niche that pests can adapt to thrive in by eating their crops. For a variety of reasons, insects are really good at this and can present a particularly big challenge. Modern farmers tackle this challenge through a system known as Integrated pest management, which understands it through an ecological lens like I have described here and encourages "the careful consideration of all available pest control techniques and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and keep pesticides and other interventions to levels that are economically justified and reduce or minimize risks to human health and the environment."

Paracelsus once said that "Alle Dinge sind Gift, und nichts ist ohne Gift, allein die Dosis macht dass ein Ding kein Gift ist." Or in English: All things are poison, and nothing is without poison, the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison. So much of modern medicine and agronomy, from antibiotics to chemotherapy to pesticides, is based on the fact that a dose that is poisonous for one critter is not poisonous for another, often abstracted as a therapeutic index. For example, antibiotics are compounds that can be used to treat bacterial disease by taking advantage of differences between bacteria and us. They do this by inhibiting processes that happen in bacterial cells but not human cells, like how bacterial ribosomes make proteins with machines that are shaped pretty different from ours, and work by acting as a monkey wrench that sabotages theirs but doesn't fit into ours. There are also some other important antibiotics that target other differences like different machinery for DNA synthesis, membrane synthesis, central metabolism, and a few others. They are essentially a selective toxin, poisoning bacteria and not us. Unfortunately there appears to be a depressingly short list of differences between us and the bacteria that ail us to attack, leading to the present crisis with antibiotic resistance.

Pesticides dating back to pre-history have always worked along the same principle, ancient pesticides like copper and other heavy metals that are still used in some contexts target things that are pretty universal in biological chemistry, making them pretty universally toxic. They just happen to be more toxic to target critters than to the crop, which makes them pretty awful for safety and the environment, but also means that they select for resistance less easily. Many modern pesticides, which glyphosate is a pretty great example of, were developed by figuring out the mechanism of action of promising compounds and selecting ones that target very specific things like antibiotics do. Glyphosate targets a specific enzyme in the shikimate pathway, which is not found in humans or many crop plants. Its also very toxic to target plants allowing it to be effective in very small doses, a coke can per acre, and not particularly stable, preventing contamination of waterways.

Neonicotinoids are a family of compounds related to nicotine that are incredibly useful for artificially making artificial environments like farm fields very hostile to insects in a very specific way. The neuro-active effects of nicotine that we are generally most familiar with in humans originally evolved as an insecticidal function in tobacco, and Pre-Columbian agriculture in the western hemisphere made extensive use of tobacco smoke for this purpose. The insecticidal uses of tobacco in agriculture were also among the earliest technological adaptations that were broadly adapted in Europe and then the rest of the Eastern hemisphere in the Columbian exchange. The new class of compounds we are talking about came from work at Shell and then Bayer to figure out the molecular mechanisms of this technique and then design new compounds that farmers could spray on their fields to make their crops more hostile to insects more effectively. This work was done using modern toxicological methods for ensuring that the concentrations of pesticide that were used would be effective at deterring insects from artificially adapting to the artificial environment, while at the same time remaining simultaneously safe for consumers, agricultural workers, and the environment. They have always been considered to be relatively safe for vertebrates generally because the same effects that are profoundly toxic for insects seem to just get vertebrates a bit high. Today they are the most widely used class of agricultural insecticides worldwide and can be acurately described as damn near essential for a lot of sectors of modern agriculture.

There has from the beginning been a very clear awareness that, while insects artificially adapting to eat crops are bad, many insects in a lot of contexts in farm fields are good, and that insects in the environments around farm fields are worth protecting. There have been, from the beginning, strict rules around the spraying of neonicotinoids at scale that have taken this into account and are not as scientifically controversial as you might think. This article, and most of the news you may have heard about neonicotinoids, relates mostly to the controversy about rules related to how farmers use neonicotinoids to deal with a second related problem. When you put a lot of seeds densely into the ground all at the same time, like farmers have been for millennia, you artificially create a very attractive new environmental niche that is incredibly attractive to all manner of critters who can thrive by adapting to eat all of your especially tasty seeds. For a variety of reasons it is particularly difficult to manipulate this new environment in such a way as to deter insects from adapting to thrive at scale by eating all of your seeds. Thus, in modern agriculture, farmers will often coat their seeds in insect targeting pesticides like neonicotinoids.

Because seeds are placed into the ground, and because the total amount of pesticide necessary to coat seeds in even relatively high concentrations is so low, the rules for how, when, and at what concentrations farmers can do this at scale have been relatively generous. However, there have been studies that seem to show that the binders and techniques used to keep the pesticide on the seed as its being planted may be inadequate in such a way as to create a cloud during planting that could impact pollinating insects. This is particularly troubling since pollinating insects are often wanted in farm fields, have significant commercial and environmental value, and are very much worth protecting. It is currently unclear whether new techniques for planting or coating can address the concern while allowing farmers to continue protecting their fields, and there is a lot of appropriate panic on the part of regulators and the competing interests of farmers. This paper, which I'll read closely when I get a chance because Science parpers are written in such a way as to make them incredibly annoying to critically interrogate, is positing and appears to pretty strongly demonstrate a new problem: that "ingestion of field-realistic levels of neonicotinoid insecticides reduced feeding and accumulation of body mass and fat stores, which led to delayed departure from stopover sites." This would then be a particularly big problem because "such delays can lead to reduced migration survival and decreased reproductive success and therefore have the potential to impose population-level impacts." They are positing that our previous speculation about the relative safety of these compounds for migratory songbirds didn't take into account how bad getting them a bit high might be for them at the critical stage they get exposed at. If valid, this finding should have huge implications for the conversations happening both in North America and in Europe, where migrating songbirds are and should be incredibly valued. Using the precautionary principle, it would then create one more problem that farmers would have to demonstrate they can overcome before they get to use neonicotinoids in this way.

The healthy citizen oversight that is desperately needed to make our capitalist system work for us rather than just capitalists doesn't work if it turns into a jumble of loose associations and conspiratorial thinking. For example, the pharmaceutical companies that make vaccines have demonstrated over and over again that they absolutely do need watchful eyes keeping them honest, but just like with so much of the Organic movement, when we have eyes that see danger and conspiracy everywhere; they're no longer actually watching. The type of activism that takes on a zealot's understanding of science rather than a student's, where having run down the rabbit hole 'truth' becomes a tool rather than a goal, quickly comes to resemble all of the worst impulses of industry with all of their bullshit but none of their resources. When science is used like a drunk man might use a lamppost, for support rather than illumination, it quickly becomes apparent to everyone who isn't immersed how little a community can be trusted to accurately report what is around them as everything they say resembles a blurry drunken haze of things that do or do not support their crusade. The only real solution is the sober application of that lamppost, the humble search for truth, the honest communication of findings, and the translation of those findings into justifiable action by people who understand them.

TL;DR: If we intend to live in a society that simultaneously values food security and the lives of the kinds of people that inefficient agriculture always impacts, as well as the health of the planet we live on, the conversation that we have about this as a global community is going to need to be one where we use science to balance the competing interests involved with evidence and maturity rather than blind ideology or anger. The value that pesticides generally have now for IPM strategies is an incredibly important part of how we have staved off Malthusian apocalypses over the last few centuries, and they will continue to be essential for how we avoid starving people by the billion in the future. At the same time, we have created so much agricultural wealth over the last century that we absolutely can afford to avoid using tools that we can't demonstrate are at least largely fine for the environment according to the precautionary principle. However, this balance will only work if it is actually weighed with expertise and an appreciation for how complex it is. If we fuck it up so as to get a cheap thrill from anger on the internet, both us and the planet will suffer.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:09 AM on September 13, 2019 [15 favorites]

Thank you for the lengthy, detailed, and clear response.
posted by kokaku at 4:38 AM on September 13, 2019

Glad the EU is banning more of this stuff.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 5:11 AM on September 13, 2019

Flagged as fantastic, Blasdelb. You did good work today.
posted by evilmomlady at 5:49 AM on September 13, 2019

blind opposition to monoculture is pretty precisely synonymous with support for famine

The million or so dead Irish from their potato famine might have liked a chance to speak on how bad monocultures are for food security, except that they died terribly.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 9:30 AM on September 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

Well hey, its a good thing then these days we have modern fungicides and dessicants, resistant cultivars, seed control, decission support systems, and mechanical control systems like ridging to control Phytophthora infestans with alongside all this modern snark. However, Phytophthora infestans didn't kill during the Great Famine. It was wishful thinking about plant pathology by elites who found themselves happier when they ignored experts and maintained an utter indifference about the consequences of being wrong combined with the brutal colonialism that put them in a position to make such horrific choices that killed at least a million. Its a shame that wishful thinking and indifference seem to be making a comeback.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:29 AM on September 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm no elite, but I am unapologetically countering a dangerous assertion with a fact which is easily verifiable.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 12:24 PM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

The problem with that historical view (re: Irish potato famine) is that the landholding English-descended class continued food exports during the famine, including livestock and butter. The working and farming class that relied on cheap and plentiful potato crops lacked access to those foods, even if they were responsible for the manual labor on those farms. It wasn't that Ireland's agricultural sector was a monoculture, it was that the main food source of much of the population was linked to a single crop.
posted by mikeh at 1:41 PM on September 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

The so-called Irish potato famine was politically engineered, and:
Complicating matters further, historians have since concluded, was that Ireland continued to export large quantities of food, primarily to Great Britain, during the blight. In cases such as livestock and butter, research suggests that exports may have actually increased during the Potato Famine.

In 1847 alone, records indicate that commodities such as peas, beans, rabbits, fish and honey continued to be exported from Ireland, even as the Great Hunger ravaged the countryside.
posted by katra at 2:56 PM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

it was that the main food source of much of the population was linked to a single crop

This is what actual experts who know what they are talking about — elites, one might even call them — would actually describe as a genuine food security risk.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 12:01 AM on September 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

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