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Environmental groups have a clear message for what the Obama administration's next move should be to protect bees: Suspend the use of neonicotinoids now.
The White House on Friday announced the formation of a federal task force to draft a "National Pollinator Health Strategy" that prioritizes research and other efforts to help stem bee losses and protect other pollinators. President Barack Obama, in a memo, instructed the EPA, USDA and 14 other offices and departments to work over the next six months to develop an action plan laying out how the government will help to address pollinator declines through data-sharing, assessments of the status of native pollinators, identification of best practices and targeting resources, among other things.
While environmental groups are largely supportive of the move, in particular the administration's calls to "minimize use of pesticides harmful to pollinators," they say the president is skirting taking the action really needed.
"This gives us hope that EPA really needs to move more quickly than it has" to assess the risks of pesticides to pollinators, "but I'm reluctant to say that it's going to force EPA to do what it needs to do," said Larissa Walker, head of the Center for Food Safety's pollinator campaign.
The task force force in its final report needs to detail "a strong effort to reduce the amount of pesticides we are using if not suspend neonicotinoid use altogether," Walker said. While there are many factors contributing to pollinator population declines, "pesticides are sort of the connecting link between all of these other stressors, and pesticides are the one problem we can address immediately."
CropLife America, which represents the pesticide industry, meanwhile, is backing the White House's efforts, and particularly its calls for more work looking at bee pests.
"CLA is pleased that the president recognizes that multiple stressors are responsible for impacting pollinator health, including poor bee nutrition, loss of forage lands, parasites, pathogens and lack of genetic diversity," Jay Vroom, president of the group, said in a statement. "We support additional research surrounding the interplay of all of these factors, as well as management techniques for controlling harmful pests such as the Varroa mite."
Pollinator populations have been in serious decline over the past few years. Since 2006, winter honeybee losses have averaged 30 percent annually as compared to the historical norm of 10 to 15 percent, according to USDA surveys. The decline has been bad news for at least 90 commercials crops in North America that depend on honey bees for production, according to a fact sheet from the White House. Pollinators are estimated to contribute more than $24 billion to the U.S. economy.
Many things are thought to contribute to the population losses, including a lack of foraging lands, bee pests such as the Varroa mite and exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides, which are taken up by the root of the plant and are thus present in the nectar consumed by bees.
The efforts called for by the White House memo are "actually just wise management," and a way to "do things more effectively," Laurie Davies Adams, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership, said Friday during a congressional briefing in honor of National Pollinator Week. The memo really comes down to "how do we use those resources wisely."
The White House has been working with the Pollinator Partnership and other stakeholder groups for four months to develop the responsibilities and membership of the federal taskforce, Adams told POLITICO in an interview after the event.
"They didn't skirt any issue" in the memo, raising concerns over pesticides as well as other issues, Adams said. "They know people are watching them" to see how the plan is carried out.
However, given that federal agencies already have access to the existing body of research on pollinators, it's unclear what having the taskforce will change, said Tiffany Finck-Haynes, food futures campaigner for Earthjustice. While it's good that the White House is "recognizing that something more needs to be done we think they could have restricted [neonicotinoid] use today and they should have done that if they really want to protect pollinators," she said.
"They've had all the available data," she said.
The pesticide industry will likely see some changes related to pollinators long before the taskforce's report is issued due to the release Friday of a new guidance by EPA on assessing pesticide risks to bees. The guidance calls for looking at risks over the life cycle of the bees using the honey bee as the main species tested.
EPA and USDA have led efforts in the past to address pollinator declines by developing best management practices, tracking losses and reviewing pesticides, like neonicotinoids, that are thought to have detrimental effects on bees.
In addition to the memo and the release of EPA's guidance, USDA announced Friday it is putting aside another $8 million for the promotion of pollinator habitats in five Midwestern states.