Many agricultural areas—places where we grow food to nourish our bodies—have become killing fields for birds. In fact, a 2013 study identifies pesticides used in agriculture as the most likely cause of the widespread decline in grassland birds in the United States.
Grassland birds like Lark Bunting are in serious decline—and widespread use of toxic pesticides in agriculture is a major cause. This 2013 study challenged the assumption that loss of habitat is the primary cause of grassland bird declines.
That research focused on older pesticides like organophosphates and carbamates. Since then, a new class of insecticides, the neonicotinoids, has soared to the top of global pesticide markets.
The story of agriculture today is the story of neonicotinoids—a class of insecticides first introduced in the United States in 1994 that quickly became the most widely used insecticides on Earth.
In addition to home use, neonics are used in high concentrations in the coatings of seeds used to grow corn, canola, sunflowers, soy, vegetables, and other crops. For many products such as corn, it’s nearly impossible for farmers to buy seeds that are not treated.
Neonics are systemic throughout the treated plant, transported into the leaves, nectar, and pollen. And they are water soluble, so they readily get into our water supplies.
In our 2013 study, “The Impact of the Nation’s Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds,” we found that neonics are toxic to birds and invertebrates, even in small quantities, and they persist in soils for months and even years.
These findings emerged from review of 200 studies, including 2,800 pages of industry research obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Unfortunately, our assessment of neonics concluded that a single seed coated with a neonic can kill a songbird, and as little as one-tenth of a coated seed per day during the egg-laying season can impair reproduction.
Our report looked at aquatic insects as well, which are a critical food source for swifts, swallows, and other insect-eating birds that are now in decline. We found that levels of these chemicals in many surface and ground waters are enough to kill the aquatic invertebrate life on which so many birds depend.
The neonicotinoid seed treatments are a pre-emptive strike, completely inconsistent with integrated pest management—the system in which farmers monitor for pests and do all they can to prevent outbreaks, applying conventional chemicals only as a last resort.
Through these seed treatments, we are blanketing our lands with chemicals even when there is not a pest to be found in 100 miles, and even when there is scant evidence that these chemicals are increasing agricultural yields.
Our 2015 study on neonicotinoids found these chemicals in more than 90 percent of food tested from U.S. Congress dining halls, illustrating how prevalent they are in our food supply.