Neonicotinoid pesticides are great at killing insect pests, which helps to explain the dramatic rise in their use during the past 20 years. They're popular because they are systemic pesticides -- they don't just get sprayed onto plant surfaces. They can be applied to seeds, roots, and soil, becoming incorporated into a growing plant, turning it into poison for any bugs that might munch upon it.
But using neonics to control pests is like using a hand grenade to thwart a bank robbery.
Which is why the European Union has banned the use of many of them -- and why environmentalists are suing the U.S. EPA to do the same.
The pesticides don't just affect pest species. Most prominently, they affect bees and butterflies, which are poisoned when they gather pollen and nectar. But neonics' negative impacts go far beyond pollinators. They kill all manner of animals and affect all kinds of ecosystems. They're giving rise to Silent Spring 2.0.
"It's just a matter of time before somebody can point to major species declines that can be linked to these compounds," said Pierre Mineau, a Canadian pesticide ecotoxicologist. "Bees have been the focus for the last three or four years, but it’s a lot broader than that."
Mineau contributed to an epic assessment of the ecological impacts of neonics, known as the Worldwide Integrated Assessment, in which 29 scientists jointly examined more than 800 peer-reviewed papers spanning five years. Their findings are being published in installments in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, beginning last week with a paper coauthored by Mineau that details impacts on vertebrate animals, including fish and lizards. Here's a summary of highlights: