Stephen Leahy

Biosphere Journalist | SEAL Award for Enviro Journalism; UN Global Prize for Climate Reporting | Need to Know: Science and Insight https:/

Apr 1, 2021
Published on:
2 min read
Huge Decline in Songbirds Linked to Pesticides - Nat Geo
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I hate to have to tell you this but you Need-to-Know that majority of the world’s agricultural land is contaminated by multiple pesticides. Multiple means 11 or more pesticides currently contaminate 68% of food producing lands in Europe and 58% in North America a new study in Nature Geoscience reveals. These pesticides do not stay in the soil, they move into surface and groundwater and also blown into the air. The study did not look at the human health impacts or those on other living organisms.

Nor did it consider growing evidence of danger posed by pesticide mixtures that amplify their toxicity.

Map showing number of pesticides Active Ingredients (AI)

For several days I debated whether or not to bring you this. I’m tired of being the bearer of bad news you don’t want to know about. But ignoring things like this just allows them to continue.

The authors of the study concluded:

"Although protecting food production is essential for human development, reducing pesticide pollution is equivalently crucial to protect the biodiversity that maintains soil health and functions, contributing towards food security

We recommend a global strategy to transition towards a sustainable, global agricultural model that reduces food wastage while reducing the use of pesticides…”

Any one ever heard of the IPCC for agriculture?

It was a multi-year assessment involving more than 400 experts, including farmers, about how to feed the world today and in the future in an era of climate change, declining water and other resources. It was called the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).

Doesn’t ring a bell? The name didn’t help. The IAASTD submitted it’s landmark report in 2008. I was the only journalist there at the time, which struck me as more than odd. Here’s what I wrote about their conclusion:

“…that the dominant practice of industrial, large-scale agriculture is unsustainable, mainly because of growing water scarcity, the dependence of this practice on cheap oil and its negative effects on ecosystems.”

The IAASTD recommended a global shift to agro-ecological agriculture with minimal use of pesticides as the way forward to feed the world, protect waterways and ecosystems and to help farmers. Agribusiness, including the big agrochemical companies, were initially part of the assessment but backed out largely because the assessment’s recommendations had to be based on solid evidence. Evidence they either didn’t have or didn’t want make public.

Like the IPCC, the Ag Assessment final recommendations were hotly debated by political representatives. Specifically the US, Australia and Canada objecting to the report mentioning the lack of evidence that the use of genetically modified (GM) crops in food was beneficial and safe.

Need-to-Know 1: Agroecology mimics nature, replacing the external inputs like chemical fertilizer with knowledge of how a combination of plants, trees, and animals can enhance the productivity of land.

Need-to-Know 2: Agroecology doesn’t require expensive inputs of fossil-fuel-based pesticides, fertilizers, machinery or hybrid seeds.

Here’s what Olivier De Schutter, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food told me:

Yields went up 214 percent in 44 projects in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa using agro-ecological farming techniques over a period of 3 to 10 years… far more than any GM [genetically modified] crop has ever done.”

That 2008 report was our roadmap for producing enough healthy food for all but never received any real public or policymaker attention and just ended up on academic library shelves.

That roadmap is what the authors of the global pesticide pollution study are saying we still need. It’s also what other major international organizations including the IPCC have been calling for. I wrote up a couple of these for Nat Geo in 2019: World food crisis looms if carbon emissions go unchecked, UN says and How to feed the world without destroying the planet

So year after year after year major international science-based organizations say we have to get off the industrialized, chemically-dependent food production treadmill, and still government policies continue to favor that unsustainable system.

Here’s a great illustration of this. On March 31 Canada’s pesticide regulator decided to allow the widespread use of neonicotinoid insecticides to continue. I’ve written lots about neonicotinoids or neonics over the past six years based on a number of recent scientific reports. Some things you should know:

Need-to-Know 3: Neonics are believed to be the main cause of what’s become known as the Insect Apocalypse — the enormous decline in insect life, including pollinators.

Need-to-Know 4: Neonics are the world’s most widely used insecticide. They’re used everywhere including lawn care and garden centers. Buy a plant or a seed and it’s likely been treated

Need-to-Know 5 : There are six main types of neonics with nice chemical names: acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam.

Need-to-Know 6: They’re very good at destroying the nerve cells of anything that ingests them.

Need-to-Know 7: Neonics are used to treat seeds. That makes the seeds toxic to birds.

Need-to-Know 8: Because they’re systemic, the plant that grows from a treated seed incorporates the toxins making the plant poisonous to any insect that nibbles on them.

Need-to-Know 9: Pollen, nectar, sap and even dead leaves contain neonics -- and they get into streams, ponds and groundwater

Here’s a few of my articles on neonic research dating back to 2014:

The same insecticide nerve poison that is contributing to the shocking declines in bees and other pollinators is also behind the sharp declines in many other insect species, along with insect-eating birds and bats.

Huge decline in songbirds linked to common insecticide

The world's most widely used insecticide has been linked to the dramatic decline in songbirds in North America. A first ever study of birds in the wild found that a migrating songbird that ate the equivalent of one or two seeds treated with a…

America’s agricultural landscape is now 48 times more toxic to honeybees, and likely other insects, than it was 25 years ago, almost entirely due to widespread use of so-called neonicotinoid pesticides, according to a new study published today in...

Neonics have largely been banned in Europe. Under the Trump administration the US continued to allow their use. Canada’s regulator was going to prohibit outdoor use of the two main neonic chemicals but as of March 31st reversed itself, allowing their use. Groups concerned about nature and ecology were outraged:

“Canada’s failure to take effective and timely action on neonics should serve as a wake-up call,” said Lisa Gue, senior policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation.

“A failure to reduce the threat of these poisons is an attack on all Canadians,” Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence.

“Loss of insect biomass has consequences for wildlife up the food chain, from amphibians to bats and birds,” said Carolyn Callaghan, senior conservation biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

Given the indisputable fact of wide-spread insect and song bird declines, I was surprised Canada would continue to allow widespread use of a powerful insecticide that’s been linked to those declines. That decision reveals the power of agribusiness — and explains why the shift to agroecological food production that international organizations call for year after year never happens.

So why does this appalling, self-destructive situation continue?

Let me leave you with this bit of wisdom from Senegalese forest ranger, Baba Dioum, who said:

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”

— source: A Brief History of Earth, Andrew Knoll

Until next time, please stay strong and stay safe.