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Pilatic writes: "What do GE seeds have to do with neonicotinoids and bees? ... How can an Iowa corn farmer find himself feeling unable to farm without poisoning pollinators? In other words, where did U.S. corn cultivation go wrong?"

A honey bee on sweet corn. (photo: Relaxed Politics)
A honey bee on sweet corn. (photo: Relaxed Politics)

 



Bee Kills in the Corn Belt: What's GE Got to Do With It?

By Heather Pilatic, Reader Supported News

18 May 12

 

n the last few weeks beekeepers have reported staggering losses in Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio after their hives foraged on pesticide-treated corn fields. Indiana too, two years ago. What's going on in the Corn Belt?

No farmer in their right mind wants to poison pollinators. When I spoke with one Iowa corn farmer in January and told him about the upcoming release of a Purdue study confirming corn as a major pesticide exposure route for bees, his face dropped with worn exasperation. He looked down for a moment, sighed and said, "You know, I held out for years on buying them GE seeds, but now I can't get conventional seeds anymore. They just don't carry 'em."

This leaves us with two questions: 1) What do GE seeds have to do with neonicotinoids and bees? and 2) How can an Iowa corn farmer find himself feeling unable to farm without poisoning pollinators? In other words, where did U.S. corn cultivation go wrong?

The short answer to both questions starts with a slow motion train wreck that began in the mid-1990s: Corn integrated pest management (IPM) fell apart at the seams. Rather, it was intentionally unraveled by Bayer and Monsanto.

Honey Bees Caught in the Cross-fire

Corn is far from the only crop treated by neonicotinoids, but it is the largest use of arable land in North America, and honey bees rely on corn as a major protein source. At least 94 percent of the 92 million acres of corn planted across the U.S. this year will have been treated with either clothianidin or thiamethoxam (another neonicotinoid).

As we head into peak corn planting season throughout the U.S. Midwest, bees will once again "get it from all sides" as they:

  • fly through clothianidin-contaminated planter dust;
  • gather clothianidin-laced corn pollen, which will then be fed to emerging larva;
  • gather water from acutely toxic, pesticide-laced guttation droplets; and/or
  • gather pollen and nectar from nearby fields where forage sources such as dandelions have taken up these persistent chemicals from soil that's been contaminated year on year since clothianidin's widespread introduction into corn cultivation in 2003.

 

GE Corn & Neonicotinoid Seed Treatments Go Hand-in-hand

Over the last 15 years, U.S. corn cultivation has gone from a crop requiring little-to-no insecticides and negligible amounts of fungicides, to a crop where the average acre is grown from seeds treated or genetically engineered to express three different insecticides (as well as a fungicide or two) before being sprayed prophylactically with RoundUp (an herbicide) and a new class of fungicides that farmers didn't know they "needed" before the mid-2000s.

A series of marketing ploys by the pesticide industry undergird this story. It's about time to start telling it, if for no other reason than to give lie to the oft-repeated notion that there is no alternative to farming corn in a way that poisons pollinators. We were once -- not so long ago -- on a very different path.

How Corn Farming Went Off the Rails

In the early 1990s, we were really good at growing corn using bio-intensive integrated pest management (bio-IPM). In practice, that meant crop rotations, supporting natural predators, using biocontrol agents like ladybugs and as a last resort, using chemical controls only after pests had been scouted for and found. During this time of peak bio-IPM adoption, today's common practice of blanketing corn acreage with "insurance" applications of various pesticides without having established the need to do so would have been unthinkable. It's expensive to use inputs you don't need, and was once the mark of bad farming.

Then, in the mid-to-late 1990s, GE corn and neonicotinoid (imidacloprid) seed treatments both entered the market -- the two go hand-in-hand, partly by design and partly by accident. Conditions for the marketing of both products were ripe due to a combination of factors:

  • regulatory pressures and insect resistance had pushed previous insecticide classes off the market, creating an opening for neonicotinoids to rapidly take over global marketshare;
  • patented seeds became legally defensible, and the pesticide industry gobbled up the global seed market; and
  • a variant of the corn rootworm outsmarted soy-corn rotations, driving an uptick in insecticide use around 1995-96.

Then, as if on cue, Monsanto introduced three different strains of patented, GE corn between 1997 and 2003 (RoundUp Ready, and two Bt-expressing variants aimed at controlling the European Corn Borer and corn root worm). Clothianidin entered the U.S. market under conditional registration in 2003, and in 2004 corn seed companies began marketing seeds treated with a 5X level of neonicotinoids (1.25 mg/seed vs. .25).

... and in the space of a decade, U.S. corn acreage undergoes a ten-fold increase in average insecticide use. By 2007, the average acre of corn has more than three systemic insecticides -- both Bt traits and a neonicotinoid. Compare this to the early 1990s, when only an estimated 30-35 percent of all corn acreage were treated with insecticides at all.

Adding fuel to the fire, in 2008 USDA's Federal Crop Insurance Board of Directors approved reductions in crop insurance premiums for producers who plant certain Bt corn hybrids. By 2009, 40 percent of corn farmers interviewed said they did not have access to elite (high-yielding) non-Bt corn seed. It is by now common knowledge that conventional corn farmers have a very hard time finding seed that is not genetically engineered and treated with neonicotinoids.

Enter Fungicides

In 2007, what's left of corn IPM was further unraveled with the mass marketing of a new class of fungicides (strobilurins) for use on corn as yield "boosters." Before this, fungicide use on corn was so uncommon that it didn't appear in Crop Life's 2002 National Pesticide Use Database. But in the last five years, the pesticide industry has aggressively and successfully marketed prophylactic applications of fungicides on corn as yield and growth enhancers, and use has grown dramatically as a result. This despite the fact that these fungicides work as marketed less than half the time. According to this meta-analysis of efficacy studies, only "48% of treatments resulted in a yield response greater than the economic break-even value of 6 bu/acre."

Back to the bees. Neonicotinoids are known to synergize with certain fungicides to increase the toxicity of the former to honey bees up to 1,000-fold, and fungicides may be key culprits in undermining beneficial bee microbiota that do things like make beebread nutritious and support immune response against gut pathogens like Nosema. Fungicide use in corn is likewise destroying beneficial fungi in many cropping systems, and driving the emergence of resistant strains.

As with insecticides and herbicides, so too with fungicide use on corn: Corn farmers are stuck on a pesticide treadmill on high gear, with a pre-emptively pressed turbo charge button (as "insurance"). Among the many casualties are our honey bees who rely on corn's abundant pollen supply.

Keeping us all tethered to the pesticide treadmill is expected behavior from the likes of Monsanto. But what boggles the mind is that all of this is being aided and abetted by a USDA that ties cheap crop insurance to planting patented Bt corn, and a Congress that refuses to tie subsidized crop insurance in the Farm Bill to common-sense conservation practices like bio-intensive IPM. Try explaining that with a waggle dance.

 

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+2 # JSRaleigh 2012-05-18 22:28
I can't remember the last time I saw a honeybee.
 
 
+5 # jwb110 2012-05-19 09:34
Quoting JSRaleigh:
I can't remember the last time I saw a honeybee.

Me either. When I still lived in the Northeast, I stopped see honeybees in large numbers many from wild hives. The gap seemed to be filled with small numbers of native bees many maintaining underground hives. I had a large vegetable garden and notice that year after year I got less produce. Even the Victory Garden folks are suffering.
 
 
+16 # seeuingoa 2012-05-19 01:13
Isn´t this a wonderful, wonderful world?

We are being bombarded with the stupidity
of the people we have trusted to manage
this world.

NDAA, no bees, Fukushima, Iran !!!

Please, please give us a break, we can´t
take it anymore.
 
 
+12 # Ralph Averill 2012-05-19 01:23
One wonders if all of this has anything to do with the sharp decline in bee population in general. Do Dow, Monsanto, et al have a product in the pipeline to replace bees? In any case it's all going to come crashing down around us, and nature itself will resolve the issue of human overpopulation.
 
 
+18 # Vegan_Girl 2012-05-19 01:32
Where are the conservatives in this country? No, I don't mean the reactionaries calling themselves that.

I mean the people who want to conserve this planet and its species; people who hang on to wisdom that is derived from empathy, imagination, being in touch with reality, and following a long tradition of success. Where are the conservatives?
 
 
+11 # mountainmama42 2012-05-19 06:04
Having been raised on a farm in the midwest , I saw what was happening with corn as far back as the 1980's. Not only is it killing the bees but the growth hormones are making humans obese. When I could not buy unaltered corn seed , I stopped growing it and eating it .Period. And not only corn itself but all corn products and corn fructose which is banned in Europe. Our nation has become dangerously obese. But I have maintained my same weight over all these years.And ingesting it is most likely behind the rise in cancers and even autism. Our government needs to stop all this poisoning of bees and humans now.
 
 
0 # Kootenay Coyote 2012-05-19 06:14
Excellent history & analysis, but can we ask for consistency? GM (genetically modified) is preferable to GE (Genetically Enhanced) & is the standard term. & bees indicate direction & distance of flowers by a Pollen Dance, not a Waggle Dance.
 
 
+6 # bluebluesdancer 2012-05-19 08:25
#1 We need to start taking responsibility for our numbers. If we reduced the number of 'feet' making Global Footprints, we would be able to support ourselves without all of this chemical crap! We must start sooner, not later! It will take a massive effort that has to be led by the media, to change the entire world's way of thinking about population. It IS possible, and it IS essential for the continuation of our species, but it requires a huge effort and consistency on our part, which I doubt we are advanced enough to do, since so many still believe in fairies over people.
 
 
+7 # tomo 2012-05-19 10:40
A lot of things have gone wrong. One is the ability of ordinary Americans to think in terms of cause and effect. As the honey-bees decrease in numbers, the response of the typical American is to shrug. I think we're close to ancient days when the response would be: Is Zeus mad, or is it Dionysus? The idea that WE are doing this is simply dismissed out of hand. "Why would I be doing it? I have nothing against honey bees!" might be the response. That we are doing it by our purchase of corn; that we are doing it by our support of ethics-free corporations like General Electric seems such as stretch as not to be worthy of 30 seconds thought. And anyway, I've got to get back to Facebook.
 
 
+2 # tomo 2012-05-19 15:48
uh oh--looks like I misunderstood the initials GE. Sorry! The mess involves an ethics-free corporation, but the corporation is Monsanto.
 
 
+6 # Trueblue Democrat 2012-05-19 12:28
Monsanto -- Murder Incorporated that gave us, inter alia, the Texas City disaster -- is still at it and apparently won't be satisfied until it has complete control over our planet. A dead planet, at that.
 
 
+7 # mdhome 2012-05-19 13:05
The average "man on the street" Has no idea what honey bees do besides make honey, with no clue as to how important they are to food production and the consequences of the loss of honey bees, If "he" knew that next week there would be nothing on his dinner plate, he just maybe would express an interest.
 
 
-1 # RICHARDKANEpa 2012-05-20 22:48
Mexico was very upset when genetically modified corn took over the corn crop though cross pollination, organicconsumer s.org/corn/inde x.cfm Hector Magallone made graphic comments, it was like McDonald’s taking over Mexico,
http://www.organicconsumers.org/Corn/spreadofGECorn.cfm
One of the few places not affected by cross-pollinati on by Western Winds is Australia. We got different industries vying for our purchasing dollars. The heath food industry doesn’t make money if it admired only corn seed over 20 years old is free of generic engineering,

Meanwhile crops with their own insecticide can spread to wheat and rice and every plant not pollinated by insects,
http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.0040035

Since there is no money to be made spreading this information I keep blogging to myself, while different conclusions that makes the writer money keeps spreading through the blogspere,
 
 
-1 # RICHARDKANEpa 2012-05-20 22:51
I left out of my comment. Please ban corn sirup, and potentially rice sweetener. So called wild bees get corn syrup from discarded soda cans.
 

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