Already implicated in the apocalyptic destruction of honeybees, pesticide use is now found to also be the culprit in declining bird populations. Despite repeated assurances from biotechs and their advocates that these chemicals are safe for the environment as well as humans, evidence is mounting that their repeated, prolonged application is creating a plague of biblical proportions.
Neonictonoids are nerve agents chemically similar to tobacco that are targeted to leaf-sucking insects, but which, if consumed by humans, would trigger Parkinson's- or Alzheimer's-like symptoms. Studies have linked their use to the growing calamity of colony collapse disorder, or CCD, which prevents bees from finding their hives, leading to decimation of bee populations. Since bees are the primary way crops anywhere in the world are pollinated, the demise of honeybees would indeed be cataclysmic.
Those most responsible for the pesticide product are the agri-giants Bayer, Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW), and Syngenta (NYSE: SYT), which produce a handful of neonictinoids that have been found to be most as fault, but global conglomerates like Sumitomo, Mitsui, and Nippon Soda are also pushing pesticides that have wide distribution.
The European Food Safety Authority confirmed last year that chemicals like Bayer's clothianidin and imidacloprid, along with Syngenta's thiamethoxam, present an "unacceptable" danger to bee populations. It further asserted that the safety claims made by the chemical companies themselves and their regulatory overseers to justify their use are flawed, perhaps even deceptive. And now a new study published in the prestigious journal Nature says that Bayer's imidacloprid, the most widely used insecticide, is also behind collapsing bird populations.
According to the study, researchers found that areas with higher surface-water concentrations of the insecticide suffered a precipitous drop in birds such as starlings and barn swallows, and notably, the declines occurred only after imidacloprid was introduced in the mid-1990s. Its widespread use to kill insects has a "cascading effect" across the ecosystem.
The relationship between pesticide use and killing off of birds may be familiar enough to those who remember Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" that arguably touched off the modern environmental movement with its crusade against DDT use as the cause of the killing off of bald eagles and other birds of prey by thinning their eggshells. While much of her work has apparently since been discredited as sensationalistic and not fact-based (a point not remembered nearly as much), the implication remains that the use of powerful chemicals in the environment does have far-reaching if often unseen effects.
Unlike spraying herbicides such as Monsanto's (NYSE: MON) Roundup on crops to kill weeds but still allow plants to grow regardless, neonictonoids are coated onto crop seeds and become part of the plant itself as it grows. As insects chew on the leaves and stems, they become poisoned from within. Although effective, the systemic nature of the pesticide means the flower, pollen, and nectar are also toxic, and this is why the pesticide is seen as killing off bee populations as well. And with birds feeding on the poisoned insects, it explains why they're dying off as well.
Just as we're creating superweeds resistant to Roundup's effects, we're also creating superbugs resistant to the effects of pesticides, but potentially damaging the ecosystem surrounding them. Like an arms race escalating out of control, where each side has to build deadlier capabilities, it also seems as though we're on an ecological path to mutually assured destruction.