Is Your Popcorn Killing Bees?

It’s no secret that bees and other pollinators are facing a crisis. The "bee-pocalypse" and the "plight of the honey bee" headlines are hard to miss these days. This awareness is a good thing, because pollinator declines are a real problem. What is less talked about is the fact that one of the biggest threats to bees right now are pesticide-coated seeds.


Yes, you read that right. It’s now common practice for chemical companies to coat seeds of all kinds (especially those of big commodity crops like corn and soybeans) with pesticides. And a major misconception when it comes to bees and pesticides is the thought that if bees don’t pollinate certain crops (such as corn), they won’t be affected by the toxic pesticides applied to those crops. Unfortunately, thanks to the rapid rise in uses of pesticide seed coatings, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Let’s back up. It’s true that since the mid-2000s, bees have been dying at alarming rates and beekeepers continue to struggle to keep their hives healthy enough to pollinate many of our food crops. It's also true that over the past several years, scientific studies have continued to point to a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids ("neonics") as a leading culprit in bee population losses and poor colony health. Neonics are highly poisonous neurotoxic chemicals and their use has particularly harmful impacts on bees and other pollinators like butterflies. Neonics are systemic chemicals that make the entire plant toxic to any insect that visits it. Neonics can and do kill species outright, or alternatively, the negative impacts of exposure to the chemicals build, causing debilitating chronic effects.

The largest single use of neonics is as pesticide seed coatings (picture the pesticides being poured onto the seeds) for field crops, like corn. In fact, over 100 million acres of cropland—an area the size of California—are directly exposed to neonics from corn, soybean and cotton seed coatings alone. The scale and rate at which we’re using these chemical seed coatings is unprecedented: Virtually all of the corn grown in the United States comes from seeds coated with neonic chemicals, and the total acreage of corn treated with insecticides is now three times higher than it was prior to seed coatings being used.

But bees don’t pollinate corn, so why does this matter? A huge problem with neonic seed coatings is that only a small fraction of the neonic chemical that is coated onto the seed is actually absorbed into the plant. Depending on the crop, only about five percent of the active chemical in the seed coating enters the plant, delivering enough of a dose to still make the plant highly toxic to bees, while leaving the remaining 95 percent to enter the environment through seed dust or soil contamination and water runoff.

Not only are bees exposed to the chemicals in flight (if they fly through the dust clouds in or near the fields caused by the planting of coated seeds), but the toxic dust that’s released during seed planting can settle on nearby wildflowers and once again pose a threat to bees when collecting pollen. A significant amount of the chemical on the seed is also absorbed into the surrounding soil and groundwater once planted. This means any wildflowers or trees near crop fields are able to absorb the chemicals from the soil and present yet another toxic route of exposure to bees. The chemicals that persist in the soil also pose a significant threat to native bees, as 70 percent of native bees (such as bumblebees and mining bees) build their nests in the soil.

However, it’s also important to point out that just because corn doesn’t need bees for pollination, it doesn’t mean bees won’t still collect pollen from corn. This is especially true if there are limited pollen sources around, and sadly, in huge monoculture fields, this is typically the case.

All of these threats to bees are compounded by that fact that neonic-coated seeds are planted year after year and the chemicals have long half-lives. They quickly build up in our lands and waters, frequently accumulating past safe thresholds. And here’s the kicker: Studies have shown that in many cases, neonic seed coatings are not even providing any benefit to farmers or consumers. They’re not increasing crop yields, and often, their use is doing more harm than good.

While corn dominates the neonic seed coating market, popcorn also has a big stake in the game, as a large percentage of popcorn seeds are coated with neonics. And whereas it may be very difficult for the concerned consumer to avoid products with corn grown from neonic-coated seeds, popcorn is a more manageable target. That’s why we at the Center for Food Safety launched a new campaign last year urging popcorn companies to stand up for bees and stop sourcing their popcorn from seeds that are coated in harmful neonic chemicals. Several of the leading companies saw value in the idea. Within just a couple of months, two of the largest popcorn companies, Pop Weaver and Pop Secret, agreed to phase out their use of neonics as a commitment to helping conserve bees and other pollinators, as well as the environment.

But there was one company—the biggest in the popcorn industry, with 25 percent of the U.S. market—that up until earlier this year had not even replied to our numerous letters, calls or emails: Orville Redenbacher’s, owned by ConAgra Foods. Unfortunately, since then and after months of correspondence, Orville Redenbacher’s is still refusing to take action for pollinators like other leading companies have done. It has not committed to phasing out the use of neonic seed coatings.

It is heartening to see that there is hope for companies with a strong sense of corporate social responsibility to thrive in our country by doing the right thing. But it is equally disappointing that such a major brand—one that gets its namesake from an iconic resident of America’s heartland no less—can’t see that by not eliminating neonics from its supply chain, it is choosing to be a part of the demise of the fertile lands and healthy pollinators on which its very profit margins (not to mention our food system) depend.

Neonics are an unnecessary, bee-toxic chemical that have no place near our pollinators, much less our plates. The next time you sit down for popcorn and a movie night, think about the small choices you can make, such as using your purchasing power to support socially responsible companies. That can have a big impact on the health of people, pollinators and the environment.

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