Boiled Frogs and the Pesticide Time Bomb

neonicotinoid pesticide

Story at-a-glance -

  • In 2018, nearly every corn seed sown in the U.S. was treated with neonicotinoids, along with about half of soybeans and most of the cotton
  • Planting neonicotinoid seeds kills off insects that prey on slugs — prominent corn and soybean pests — thereby reducing crop yields
  • The chemicals are having a pernicious influence on insects, such that entire ecosystems could be in jeopardy
  • Neonicotinoids are only one type of agricultural chemical that’s being used in excess; glyphosate and dicamba usage also continues to grow in spite of serious environmental concerns

By Dr. Mercola

Corn and soybean seeds colored red and blue, respectively, have become an all-too-common sight on U.S. farms. The seeds are given a colorful hue because they've been treated with neonicotinoid pesticides, and the coloring is one of the only ways to tell them apart from their untreated, yellow counterparts. In 2018, nearly every field corn seed sown in the U.S. contained the insecticides, along with about half of soybeans and most of the cotton.1

(For clarification, there are three kinds of corn: field, sweet and popcorn. Popcorn is never genetically modified, 2 although some brands may include GMO Ingredients, for example, if you purchase preflavored bags. Sweet corn is that tasty corn you eat right on the cob every summer, and it's moist when it's harvested,3 unlike field corn, which is left on the stalk longer so it can dry out in preparation for processing. Field corn is then used to make processed food products and animal feed.)

According to John Tooker, associate professor of entomology at Pennsylvania State University, " … [T]hese insecticides will be used across at least 150 million acres of (field corn) cropland, an area about the size of Texas."4

While some attention has been given to neonicotinoids' potential role in bee decline, Tooker believes the chemicals are having an even greater pernicious influence on insects, such that entire ecosystems could be in jeopardy. What's more, neonicotinoids are only one type of agricultural chemical that's being used in excess while the environmental consequences begin to unfold all-around us.

Neonicotinoids Devastating the Environment While Reducing Farmers' Crop Yields

In recent years, the acreage of crops treated with neonicotinoids has skyrocketed, as has the volume used. From 2011 to 2014, Tooker says, seed suppliers doubled the amount of insecticide applied to each seed. During that time, the number of pests have stayed largely the same, as they have since the 1990s, when only 35 percent of U.S. corn acres and 5 percent of soybean acres were treated with neonicotinoids.

Even at those levels, "pest populations did not cause economically significant harm very often," according to Tooker. "This suggests that it is not necessary to treat hundreds of millions of acres of crops with neonicotinoid seed coatings." Further, while the chemicals are very effective at killing insects, this is part of the problem.

Not every insect is a pest; in fact, many are beneficial. Research by Tooker and colleagues found that planting neonicotinoid seeds kills off insects that prey on slugs — prominent corn and soybean pests — thereby reducing crop yields.5

Other research revealed that planting seeds coated with neonicotinoids reduced predatory insects by up to 20 percent.6 Such insects help to reduce pest infestations on crops from insect pests like black cutworm, giving another example of how using neonicotinoids may actually lead to reduced crop yields for farmers. There are other alarming effects as well, particularly since only about 2 percent of the chemical is taken up by the plants.

"The critical question is where the rest goes," Tooker says, and it's known that some of it ends up in nearby waterways where the chemicals are now polluting rivers and streams and killing off aquatic insects that other species depend on for food. Not only can the treated seeds directly kill birds if they pick one up for a snack, but research suggests that declines in insect-eating birds are associated with high usage of neonicotinoids.7

An investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) even found that treating soybean seeds with neonicotinoids provides no significant financial or agricultural benefits for farmers.8 The researchers also noted there are several other foliar insecticides available that can combat pests as effectively as neonicotinoid seed treatments, with fewer risks.

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Duration of Pesticide Exposure Is a Ticking Time Bomb

Risk assessments for pesticide application often consider only the present time of use and don't factor in that usage may increase over time or the modes of application may change. In reality, pesticide usage is changing rapidly and non-target species are being exposed to multiple chemical agents for long durations of time, with unknown consequences. Writing in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science, researchers tackled the question of how changing pesticide usage over time may affect migrating amphibians such as frogs.9

They looked in particular at glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, which has been continuously increasing since it was introduced in the 1970s. "Glyphosate-based herbicides can be used as an appropriate indicator for assessing how changes in pesticide application modes affect wild-living organisms in agricultural landscapes over time," they reasoned, estimating that the use of glyphosate in German agriculture increased by 5.7-fold from 1992 to 2012.

During this time, amphibians also became more likely to transverse fields treated with the chemical during their travels. Their analysis found that juvenile great crested newts and fire-bellied toads faced the highest likelihood of coming into contact with the herbicides, while moor frogs and spadefoot toads were subjected to moderate increased of exposure ranging up to 3.6-fold higher.

Such exposure could be devastating, as glyphosate-based herbicides are toxic to amphibians, especially during the aquatic life stages, with POEA (polyethoxylated tallow amine), a surfactant commonly added to the chemical formulations, thought to be responsible for many of the adverse effects. Although POEA-free glyphosate-based herbicides were introduced in Germany in 2013, there is still concern that glyphosate-based herbicides could lead to problems with development, malformations, stress and death in amphibians.10

Dicamba Drift Reports Continue

In November 2016, the EPA approved Monsanto's weedkiller, XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology, a dicamba variety that is supposedly less prone to vaporization and drift, designed for use with genetically engineered (GE) dicamba-resistant seeds. The chemical was supposed to solve earlier problems caused by Monsanto's dicamba-resistant crops, which were released before they received approval for the less drift-prone herbicide.

As a result, illegal dicamba formulations were used, and the resulting dicamba drift caused significant damage to cropland across the U.S. The newer dicamba, however, did not prove to be the panacea that Monsanto had promised, and by November 2017, an estimated 3.6 million acres across the U.S. had been damaged by dicamba drift,11 as had trees in Iowa, Illinois and Tennessee.

In response, the EPA placed some restrictions on dicamba usage, making it more cumbersome for farmers. For instance, special training is required to apply the herbicide, and its application is prohibited when wind speeds are greater than 10 mph. Farmers are also asked to assess the risk that spraying could have on nearby crops, as well.

Despite this, reports of damage from dicamba drift have continued in 2018, including 25,000 acres of soybean damage in one area of Missouri alone. Some farmers feel they're being forced to buy Monsanto's GE dicamba-tolerant seeds, just so they can survive their neighbors' chemical sprays.12 Kevin Bradley, a University of Missouri weed specialist, confirmed that this is, indeed, a reality, telling the Delta Farm Press:13

"From what I can tell … if you don't have Xtend soybean, your crop is going to be cupped up from one end to the other. That's not a surprise because we've seen that for the past two seasons … [It doesn't take a] super-trained eye to see the tree injury from dicamba. It's kind of shocking to me to see so much damage to trees … I said it all winter: it's rarely one thing, but a combination of factors. One of those factors is physical drift …

We also have volatility. All the data in front of me says we still have a problem that hasn't been addressed. It isn't all operator error like some claim, no way … drift calls from folks who are incredulous and surprised at what's happened. I'm not — this is the third year of this and I haven't seen anything that's worked to keep these products from moving off-site."

Monsanto, meanwhile, has continued to downplay the damage reports, sometimes blaming them on farmers' using the chemicals at wind speeds higher than outlined on the label, changes in wind speed or direction or on other factors entirely.

They have no plans to scale back usage of the environmentally devastating chemical, instead boasting that they intend to sell even more GE Xtend crops (and the dicamba to go along with them) in 2019: "We went from 25 million acres in 2017 to a doubling of 50 million acres this year [2018] and expect that to continue to rise for 2019."14

The Hat Trick — Neonic-Coated Seeds With Roundup/Dicamba Premix

Pesticides do not provide a long-term solution, even in the best-case scenarios, as nature typically finds a way around them. Glyphosate-resistant superweeds like pigweed are now driving farmers to seek out dicamba-resistant crops, but dicamba-resistant weeds have already sprouted in Kansas and Nebraska, raising serious doubts that piling more pesticides on crops will help farmers, or the environment, in the long run.

In fact, in one greenhouse study of the weed Palmer amaranth, Jason Norsworthy, a weed scientist with the University of Arkansas, was able to induce dicamba resistance in just three generations by applying dicamba at sublethal doses to the first two generations. "Even though this resistance was recorded in an artificial environment, the research confirms herbicide resistance can develop in just three years if the same weed population is exposed to sublethal chemical doses," Farm Journal reported.15

The industry's solution, not surprisingly, has been to create crops tolerant to an ever-increasing mix of toxic chemicals. In 2016, for instance, Monsanto released Roundup Ready Xtend cotton and soybean seeds, designed to tolerate both Roundup and dicamba. Add in the neonicotinoid (neonic) seed coating and you've got exposure to three toxic chemicals all from the same seed.

In addition to the environmental risks, exposure to dicamba has been linked to developmental and reproductive problems as well as Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer originating in your lymphatic system.16 Glyphosate has also been linked to a slew of health problems, including being labeled a probable carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Integrated Pest Management and Other Solutions for the Pesticide Time Bomb

There's little doubt that the ever-increasing rate of pesticide usage is a ticking time bomb for environmental and human health — but there are other solutions that are far healthier (and productive) for everyone involved. Tooker, among other experts, recommends the use of integrated pest management (IPM) as one tool.

A 2015 study found that IPM techniques reduced pesticide use while boosting crop yields in a meta-analysis of 85 sites in 24 countries.17 Some were even able to eliminate pesticide use entirely using techniques such as crop rotation and pheromone traps to capture insect pests. In order to work, however, seed companies must cooperate and admit to their mistakes. Tooker wrote:18

"To implement IPM in field crops with neonicotinoids, seed companies need to acknowledge that the current approach is overkill and poses serious environmental hazards. Extension entomologists will then need to provide growers with unbiased information on strengths and limitations of neonicotinoids …

Finally, the agricultural industry needs to eliminate practices that encourage unnecessary use of seed coatings, such as bundling together various seed-based pest management products, and provide more uncoated seeds in their catalogs."

Unfortunately, as it stands, an estimated 7.7 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops each year, and that number is steadily increasing.19 Rather than acknowledging that pesticide usage is overkill, companies like Monsanto incentivize the use of more harmful chemicals to farmers by offering cash back for purchasing more chemicals.

You can get involved by actively seeking out and supporting organic, regenerative farmers, who have decided that avoiding chemical-treated seeds and excessive chemical spraying is essential to nurturing soil health, protecting the environment and growing nutritious food.