The bee killers

© Jared Belson
According to our analysis, in 2018, the agrochemical giants made 10% of their income – or 1.3 billion dollars – from selling pesticides that are highly toxic to bees. These products have been identified as one of the key pressures driving a growing number of pollinator species worldwide “toward extinction”. A threat to global food security.

The CropLife International internet site assures readers that the pesticide industry is aware of the “essential role” played by bees and other pollinating insects in agriculture, and that it promotes agricultural practices that protect their health. A promise that sorely lacks credibility. Our analysis of the Phillips McDougall data show that in 2018, 10% of the sales made by BASF, Bayer, Corteva Agriscience, FMC and Syngenta – for some 1.3 billion dollars – involved pesticides classified as “highly toxic to bees” by the United States EPA. Syngenta once again leads the group, alone responsible for close to half of the sales.

The strategy of denial

The Swiss giant claims that the media “overstate the science that clearly exists” on insect declines. While scientists identify pesticide use as one of the principal causes of the disappearance of a growing number of pollinator species worldwide – a serious threat to global food production – the company downplays the devastating impact of pesticides. This strategy of denial calls to mind the approach used in the past by the tobacco giants, in an effort to forestall the adoption of needed regulations for as long as possible.  

For Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex and author of numerous reports on the subject, there is no remaining doubt. “There is overwhelming evidence that we are in the middle of a biodiversity crisis, with extinction roughly 1000 times the natural rate. We are losing wildlife, particularly insects. The crisis is driven by a combination of factors but there is no doubt that pesticides are harming pollinators.”

The CropLife members’ best sellers in this category are Syngenta’s thiamethoxam and Bayer’s imidacloprid, two “bee killer” neonicotinoid insecticides that were banned in the EU in 2018 after a long legal battle. According to FAO and WHO, a growing amount of evidence suggests that the neonicotinoid insecticides “are causing harmful effects on bees and other beneficial insects on a very large scale.”

Another CropLife pesticide known to be very dangerous to bees is fipronil, an insecticide marketed by Bayer and BASF. “Its toxicity to pollinators is similar to that of the neonicotinoids,” explained Dave Goulson. Fipronil was blamed for a massive die-off of honey bees in France in the 1990s. The pesticide is now banned in the EU because it poses “a high acute risk to honey bees when used for the treatment of corn seeds,” according to EFSA.

The primary destination for these products? Brazil, once again, where 500 million bees died last year in just three months. The principal cause was exposure to the neonicotinoids and to fipronil, according to an investigation carried out by the Brazilian non-governmental organisations Agência Pública and Repórter Brasil. “Selling tons of those compounds that are not only hugely toxic to bees but to all insect life in a country like Brazil, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, is a pretty terrifying prospect,” Dave Goulson said.

In addition to these best-selling compounds, our investigation revealed that the members of CropLife International have been selling 37 other pesticides known to be highly toxic to bees and other pollinators. “It is shameful the way in which the pesticide industry has co-opted the concept of sustainable development around what is at present a toxic business model,” said Baskut Tuncak. And to conclude, he added:

“Whether they extinguish biodiversity, persist in the environment, poison workers, or accumulate in a mother's breast milk, highly hazardous pesticides are unsustainable. They cannot be used safely, and should have been phased out long ago.”

This text is available in three languages. In case of discrepancy between the different versions, the German text will prevail.