More than 500 million bees were found dead by beekeepers in Brazil over a three-month period earlier this year. Now, scientists are linking these mass bee die-offs to an increase in the use of pesticides, fueled by the weakening of chemical regulations by the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, a pro agri-business climate-change sceptic who has overseen a reduction of government efforts to combat illegal logging, ranching and mining in the Amazon.
According to Mongabay, the Bolsonaro government has approved 290 new pesticide products in just seven months, including several chemicals that have been banned for use in the European Union, the United States, and elsewhere. This compares with the 45 new pesticides Brazil approved over the same period in 2010.
Of 169 new pesticides sanctioned up to 21 May this year, 78 contain active ingredients classified as highly hazardous by the Pesticide Action Network and 24 contain active ingredients banned in the EU, according to a study published by Greenpeace UK’s news agency Unearthed.
Brazil’s government also introduced a new regulatory framework for assessing pesticides in July 2019 that “will reduce restrictiveness of toxicological classifications.” More than 1,900 registered pesticides have since been reevaluated, and the number classified as extremely toxic has decreased from 702 to 43.
Brazil’s agriculture minister, Tereza Cristina Dias, told parliament in May that an “ideological process” had hindered previous governments from approving pesticides and defended the use of glyphosate, a controversial product that is the world’s most widely-sold weedkiller.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate, which is currently approved for use in the US and EU, as “probably carcinogenic to humans” in 2015. In May, a California court awarded more than $2bn to a couple who said the weedkiller caused their cancer – a claim denied by the manufacturer Bayer, which faces other lawsuits. Brazil has approved 87 products containing glyphosate since September 2016, including eight this year.
“We have never had such a big release of pesticides. This is certainly a political decision,” said Marina Lacorte, an agriculture and food campaign coordinator at Greenpeace Brasil. “The industry puts profits ahead of the population’s health.”
And the health of the wider environment? Beekeepers reported mass die-offs of entire hives in four Brazilian states between October 2018 and March 2019. A study by scientists at the National Agricultural Laboratory of Rio Grande do Sul released last month found five types of pesticides in dead bees, honey, young, and combs.
Rio Grande do Sul, a major soybean producer, experienced the highest losses across the four states. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, unlike eg fruit and nut crops, soybeans are self-pollinating, meaning bees and other pollinators are not required to pollinate them.
Pesticide use is of course not limited to South America. The top four countries for pesticide use in 2018 were China, the US, Argentina, and Thailand which between them used around 2500 MILLION kilograms. Across the globe insects (non-selectively targeted by pesticides which can’t distinguish between so-called ‘good’ or ‘useful’ species and so-called ‘pests’) have been disappearing at an astonishing rate, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, according to a global scientific review published in 2019.
Insects are not just ‘useful’ as pollinators. They are essential for the proper functioning of all ecosystems. They aerate the soil, help break down and dispose of wastes, dead animals and plants, and are the sole food source for many amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds.
The rate of extinction amongst insects is now eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.