California to Bees: Drop Dead

Legislators delay restrictions on the use of a pesticide linked to the mass death of pollinators.

(Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters)

Todd Woody is TakePart's senior editor for environment and wildlife.

After years of delay, California regulators will finally take action on a widely used pesticide implicated in the mass die-off of bees that pollinate a third of the world’s food supply.

In 2020.

The California Legislature has passed a bill, A.B. 1789, that gives the state Department of Pesticide Regulation until 2018 to determine if a class of agricultural pesticides called neonicotinoids (neonics) are harmful to bees. The agency then has another two years “to adopt any control measures necessary to protect pollinator health,” according to the bill.

DPR’s original deadline? 2011.

Another example of multinational pesticide companies and Big Agriculture exerting their considerable sway over lawmakers, right?

No, actually.

The bill’s original supporters comprised a laundry list of environmental groups working to save the bees, including the Pesticide Action Network, the Center for Food Safety, and Friends of the Earth. 

PAN and CFS sued DPR in July in state court over its approval of neonic use in California before having completed its evaluation of the pesticides’ impact on bees. Several studies have identified the spraying of neonics on crops and the use of neonic-treated seeds as among several interrelated factors—including disease, parasites, and poor nutrition—responsible for the loss of some 10 million beehives over the past seven years. (Disclosure: PAN and CFS are nonprofit partners in TakePart’s Save Our Bees campaign.)

The bee supporters had good reason to back the bill when it was introduced earlier this year. Originally, it set DPR’s deadline to make a decision on neonic use as July 1, 2015. As the bill wound its way through the legislature, the deadline got pushed back after consultations with DRP, according to environmental groups. 

“What started out as a good piece of legislation that would have forced DPR to come to grips with the honeybee crisis became a bill that gives DPR a ‘get out of jail free’ card to ignore the crisis for another six years,” said Greg Loarie, a staff attorney at EarthJustice, the law firm representing the plaintiffs in the DPR lawsuit. “If it takes 11 years for DPR to respond to a crisis of the magnitude that we're facing with bees, then the system is totally broken.”

The Pesticide Action Network is now neutral on the legislation, according to Paul Towers, the group’s media director.

“While imperfect, the bill can serve as a backstop for state officials who will invariably attempt to prolong the evaluation of neonicotinoids,” he said in an email. “The passage of the bill shouldn't stop the Department of Pesticide Regulation from taking swift action to adopt protections for bees now. The agency will have yet another opportunity to implement critical protections, following data they will continue to receive from new studies over the next few months, and as independent studies come forward.”

Loarie said that if California Gov. Jerry Brown signs the bill into law, the lawsuit should survive, as the legislation doesn't resolve the dispute over whether DPR can approve pesticides before it completes a review of their potential harm.

On July 13, for instance, DPR green-lighted the use of three neonics in California.

Last year, CFS and other environmental groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its approval of two neonics, arguing the government violated the federal Endangered Species Act by failing to consider the impact of the pesticides on not just honeybees, but a host of protected wildlife.

The California bill now goes to Brown’s desk. The governor has not made his intentions known, but he has shown some sympathy for critters: Last week, he signed a bill into law that makes it legal to bring dogs to restaurants

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