It sounds like an item from a child's wish list: “When I become president, everyone can eat ice cream for breakfast and we’ll save the honeybees and butterflies.” But in fact, such a sentiment has just been expressed by President Barack Obama — minus the ice cream part — by way of a new presidential memorandum.
In “Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators” issued by the White House press office, the president outlines the importance of pollinators, the threat they are under, and a plan of attack to get them back on track.
“Pollinators contribute substantially to the economy of the United States and are vital to keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets. Honeybee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States,” says Obama. “Over the past few decades, there has been a significant loss of pollinators, including honeybees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies, from the environment.”
“The number of migrating Monarch butterflies sank to the lowest recorded population level in 2013-14, and there is an imminent risk of failed migration,” he says. “The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.”
And not a minute too soon. A world without pollinators would be a problematic place; pollination is crucial for growing the food that sustains us. Honeybees have taken a significant hit with dramatic population declines due to pesticides, mites and other factors, including colony collapse disorder. According to the White House, the number of managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. dropped from 6 million beehives in 1947 to 2.5 million today. Crops that rely on bees for pollination, like almonds, are currently at risk.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report on honeybee health, concluding that pyrethroid and neonicotinoid classes of pesticides are "a primary concern."
Sadly for the bees, the report recommendations don't go beyond offering advice about best management practices and technical advancements for applying pesticides to reduce dust and so forth, according to Natural Resources Defense Council. “The report is conspicuously silent on reducing the overall use of bee-killing pesticides, that is, on recommendations that would reduce the overall sales and profits for chemical makers,” they note.
When similar findings about neonicotinoid pesticides were reported last year by the European Food Safety Authority, the European Union did what any sensible governing agency would do; they banned the three neonicotinoids that posed an unacceptable risk to bees – thiamethoxam, clothianidin and imidacloprid – for a period of two years.
While the United States has fallen short of a decisive move like that of the EU, Obama has at least now addressed the severity of the problem. He has established the Pollinator Health Task Force to be co-chaired by the Secretary of Agriculture and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and will include the heads of a number of other agencies. Their task is to determine why honeybees, Monarch butterflies and other pollinators are on the wane and find ways to boost their conservation.
In addition, the 2015 budget recommends about $50 million to be allocated to a number of agencies for a variety of efforts, from enhancing research and strengthening pollinator habitat in crucial areas, to doubling the acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program and increasing funding for surveys to determine the impacts on pollinator losses.
“Given the breadth, severity, and persistence of pollinator losses, it is critical to expand federal efforts and take new steps to reverse pollinator losses and help restore populations to healthy levels,” concludes Obama.
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