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California Takes a Step Toward Restricting Bee-Killing Pesticides


Widely used insecticides that harm bees and songbirds would face far-reaching restrictions in California under regulations proposed by the state’s pesticide agency.

The new limits would be among the nation’s most extensive for agricultural use of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides used to kill plant-damaging pests like aphids. The highly potent pesticides have been shown to harm bees, birds, and other creatures.

Aimed at protecting bees that pollinate crops, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s proposed rules would restrict four closely-related neonicotinoid chemicals: imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin, and dinotefuran.

Unveiled in February, the rules would limit when and how much can be applied, depending on the specific chemical, the crop and, in some cases, the presence of honeybees or other pollinators. California’s pesticide regulators are still evaluating public feedback and there is no specific timeframe for finalizing the proposal.

Neonicotinoids are the most popular insecticides in the world—although not in California, according to the state pesticide agency.

“Pollinators play a very important role in the ecosystem at large as well as for crops and being able to produce food in the state.”

More than a decade in the making, California’s reevaluation of neonicotinoids began in 2009, after the agency received a report from pesticide manufacturer Bayer CropScience that “showed potentially harmful effects of imidacloprid to pollinators.” A 2014 law set a series of deadlines for reevaluating their risks and adopting “any control measures necessary to protect pollinator health.”

In addition, a bill in the Legislature would ban use of neonicotinoids in homes, yards, and other outdoor non-agricultural settings, starting in 2024. A variety of consumer products are registered for use in California, such as BioAdvanced All-in-One Rose and Flower Care Liquid Concentrate, which contains imidacloprid.

The bill trails other states, including New Jersey and Maine, that have already banned outdoor uses in gardens and residential areas. New Jersey’s ban extends to commercial landscapes, like golf courses, too.

The European Union banned several neonicotinoids for all outdoor uses because of the risks to bees. And other states already have some restrictions on agricultural use, largely by allowing the chemicals to be bought or used only by those with specific training. Rhode Island has also barred neonicotinoids when crops are blooming.

If finalized, California’s proposal to restrict agricultural use could “significantly impact when and how” neonicotinoid products can be used in the nation’s No. 1 agricultural state, according to an analysis by the California Department of Food and Agriculture

“This is critical,” said Karen Morrison, acting chief deputy director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation. “Pollinators play a very important role in the ecosystem at large as well as for crops and being able to produce food in the state.”

California regulators anticipate the rule would reduce neonicotinoids applied to plants and soil by 45 percent. Seeds coated in neonicotinoids—a major use of the chemicals—would not be restricted.

California growers say the restrictions could hamstring their power to protect crops and could ultimately lead to worse outcomes for pollinators.

Limiting the use of neonicotinoids could force the citrus industry, for instance, to use other pesticides that are “not necessarily what the state of California wants” and could require “multiple sprays, something that may pose more risk to bees,” said Casey Creamer, president and CEO of California Citrus Mutual, a trade association of citrus growers.

Almonds, cherries, citrus, cotton, grapes, strawberries, tomatoes, and walnuts are major crops expected to be highly affected by the restrictions. These crops make up about half of the state’s agricultural exports and two-thirds of the acreage treated with neonicotinoids from 2017 to 2019. Fresno, Kern, Tulare, Monterey, and San Joaquin top the list of counties where the most neonicotinoids were applied.

Some replacement chemicals may be more toxic to pests’ natural enemies—worsening infestations, the California agriculture department warned in its analysis.

Such alternatives like pyrethroids, for instance, are also “very toxic to bees, in that they hit the bee, the bee dies. If they’re in the spray, they all die,” said Robert Van Steenwyk, a cooperative extension specialist emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the authors of the report. “So, that isn’t a great alternative.”

The regulation contains some exceptions to allow neonicotinoids for invasive pests like the Asian citrus psyllid, which spreads citrus greening disease.

Though the California agriculture department does not anticipate any crop losses, its experts do expect an increase in costs because of the price of replacement pesticides.





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