GMOs and Pollinators: Protecting Biodiversity
We invite you to Get to Know GMOs! Elsewhere on our website, we have taken a deep dive into the basics of GMOs and explored the sustainable agricultural practices that most don’t attribute to GMOs. On this page, we tackle the topic of GMOs and pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, and other beneficial bugs and insects. We will discuss the important balancing act of maintaining the species and their habitats while feeding our growing, global population.
GMOs and Bees, Butterflies, and Bugs
Pollinators, such as bees, are very important not only for agriculture but also for biodiversity. Bees collect pollen and nectar to keep their hives alive, as well as pollinate plants. Pollination is a necessary part of some plants’ fertilization processes because it allows for the development of fruits and seeds.
According to the estimates of the international study conducted in 2016 by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the annual global production of food that depends directly on pollination was worth between $235 and $577 billion. Several examples of the foods bees pollinate that are part of our food supply include fruits, such as plums and apples, and alfalfa, which is fed to cows. As honey bees gather pollen and nectar for their survival, they pollinate crops such as apples, cranberries, melons, and broccoli. Some crops, including blueberries and cherries, are 90-percent dependent on honey bee pollination. One crop, almonds, depends entirely on the honey bee for pollination at bloom time.
What’s Causing the Decline in Bees?
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD is a "syndrome defined as a dead colony with no adult bees or dead bee bodies but with a live queen and usually honey and immature bees still present." Since the Colony Collapse Disorder crisis almost 15 years ago, much attention has been focused on bee health, especially honey bee health. The scientific community agrees that CCD is a complicated issue with no single cause. A variety of factors contribute to CCD, including parasites like Varroa mites and lack of adequate nutrition.
The Honey Bee Health Coalition
The Honey Bee Health Coalition is committed to finding collaborative, comprehensive strategies to support honey bee health across all of agriculture. Since launching during Pollinator Week in 2014, the Coalition has made tremendous strides toward this goal. The Coalition has grown almost 60 North American companies and organizations — including beekeepers, farmers, researchers, conservation organizations, agribusinesses, and government agencies.
The Coalition has a variety of efforts underway to provide farmers, beekeepers, and those who work with them the tools and resources to support honey bee health. As one example, the Bee Understanding Project is enabling beekeepers like me to swap jobs with farmers and gain a better understanding of each other’s operations and perspectives. An award-winning documentary about participants’ experiences during these job swaps is available at the Coalition’s website. Through this dialogue, we can identify and share solutions that work for everyone in the food production system.
Read more in this blog by Randy Verhoek, former President of the American Honey Producers Association.
What's The Connection Between Honeybees and GMOs?
Some GMO crops express a trait for insect resistance, but the results of studies conducted on these plants indicate that they are not harmful to honey bees. Concerns have also been raised that a type of insecticide called neonicotinoids – or "neonics" – could be negatively impacting honey bee health. Sometimes, the use of neonics is linked with GM crops, but neonics are used on both GMO and non-GM varieties of crops, like corn, soybeans, and canola. Neonics are the most widely used class of insecticides and were adopted to replace another class of pesticide, organophosphates. They can be applied using a variety of methods, including soil applications or as seed treatments. When used as a soil application or seed treatment, neonics are taken up by the plant, but very little of the treatment makes its way into flowers and subsequent pollen.
Research has been conducted to assess the role of neonics in the honeybee population. Amanda Zaluckyj from The Farmer's Daughter blog explains that eight large-scale field studies have concluded there are few observable effects on honeybees from realistic exposure to neonics.
Amanda’s blog goes on to explore how we know that neonics have not been shown to be a primary cause of honey bee population decline, and Dr. Stuart Smyth from the University of Saskatchewan also covers this issue in his post, "What's the Buzz on Bees?"
We understand there is concern about the health of the bee population. Bees are vital to agriculture and the environment, and protecting their health is a shared responsibility among stakeholders. Therefore, while research indicates that neonics and GMOs are not causes of CCD, biotech companies are continuing to look at the science and conduct more studies to explore the role of agriculture in bee population health.
How Can You Help Strengthen Growing Pollinator Communities?
The good news is that bee populations are currently at a 20 year high, but more can be done to strengthen growing pollinator communities. Many companies who participate in GMO Answers have provided the following information on how you can help protect the bee population:
- The Pollinator Partnership provides resources about how everyone -- including farmers and ranchers -- can help protect pollinators. Find information including a Learning Center, Eco-regional planting guides, and more.
- Participate in Operation Pollinator with Syngenta.
- Feed a Bee with Bayer, and join an online community of people growing bee-attracting plants using the hashtag #FeedABee.
- Corteva Grows Pollinator Habitats in conjunction with 4-H and Pheasants Forever.
With its iconic orange and black wings, the Monarch butterfly might be the most recognizable butterfly species in North America. They are also distinct for their massive migration across the United States and into Mexico each year.
What's Causing the Decline in Monarch Butterflies?
Monarch populations have been dwindling, which seems to be related to a few major causes: disruption of migratory patterns due to climate change, loss of overwintering grounds in Mexico due to deforestation, and reduced acreage of their summertime milkweed habitat, especially in the mid-western U.S.
What's the Connection Between Monarch Butterflies and GMOs?
Milkweed is the primary source of food for Monarch caterpillars. However, it is also considered an agricultural weed in farm fields and in pastures, due to some species' toxicity to livestock.
However, milkweed density has also declined in non-agricultural areas over the same period, meaning the cause of milkweed decline is a more complex issue. Dr. Andrew Kniss, associate professor of weed ecology and management at the University of Wyoming, explains that “research does suggest that there are more important factors than herbicides responsible for the decline of native plant species near crop fields, including milkweeds.” He suggests that whatever is reducing milkweed in non-agricultural areas may also be contributing to the decline in agricultural fields, and seeks to unravel the real reasons for the decline in milkweeds in this post on GMOAnswers.com.
Land-use changes on publicly and privately managed lands, such as the construction of roadways, highways, and electrical transmission lines rights-of-way – more than 26 million acres in total – have also contributed to the decline in available milkweed and other nectar plants. Roadside and public land management practices play a role, including frequent mowing or spraying of critical habitats along roadways, and the timing of these maintenance activities may negatively impact migration and breeding patterns. More states enacting Reduced Mowing Laws and better timing of roadside maintenance activities to allow for migration and breeding could help reinvigorate the necessary habitat and reestablish access to food sources for monarchs and other butterfly populations.
Therefore, milkweed habitat decline is not really a GM crop issue but more a product of land-use change. But let’s get back to the balancing act of growing food, GMO or not, and preserving the monarch butterfly population.
Farmers focus on using fields and can’t efficiently grow food when plants are competing with weeds. The goal of an agricultural field is to produce crops, not weeds. Farmers make a living producing food, and weeds, such as milkweed, inhibit farmers’ ability to produce all crops. However, many farmers recognize the need to preserve milkweed and are establishing buffer zones or wildlife habitat areas to nurture milkweed and monarchs. Additional preservation efforts include growing milkweed in other locations outside of agricultural fields, like un-mowed roadsides, private gardens, and other private and public areas.
How Can You Help Strengthen Growing Monarch Butterfly Communities?
Getting involved is easier than you think. As Eric Sachs explains, “anyone with an interest in helping the cause can do so in multiple ways. If you have an interest in gardening, or a willingness to learn, you can plant a butterfly garden. You can make your voice heard by encouraging park managers and public officials to consider planting milkweed and nectar plants in public areas. You can support research efforts to track the monarchs’ population and migration each year. Or, you can contribute to any number of organizations that are driving programs supporting monarch conservation.”
- Check out these resources from The Xerces Society to find milkweed seeds in your state.
- Get involved to help protect Monarch butterflies from Save Our Monarchs.
Bugs, Worms, and More
Bugs and worms greatly impact agricultural ecosystems, in both helpful and harmful ways. They can be beneficial, like ladybugs and earthworms, and help with pest management, building healthy soils, and pollinating crops. Harmful insects are agricultural pests, which can devastate entire crops and cause economic or environmental havoc. Many agricultural pests are non-native species, such as the European Corn Borer. Farmers can implement crop management practices for harmful pests, and maintain a healthy and balanced agricultural ecosystem.
What's the Connection Between Balancing This Ecosystem and GMOs?
Insect-resistant GM crops are utilized by farmers because of their ability to help control harmful pests more efficiently. These insect-resistant crops incorporate one or more proteins from a common soil bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), that kill target insects like the corn borer, but not other non-target insects, mammals, or humans.
Claim #1: In spite of the targeted pest management provided by Bt crops, some people are concerned that these crops may negatively impact helpful organisms and humans. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains that Bt crops do not pose any significant risk to the environment or human health. According to EPA, “the Bt proteins approved for use in food are expected to behave as would be expected of a dietary protein. The Bt microbial pesticides have a long history of safe use without adverse health or environmental effects.”
Claim #2: The use of Bt crops causes the Bt proteins to be less effective for pest control, and therefore requires farmers to use additional pesticides.
Safeguards are in place to help mitigate insect resistance, which are deployed on farms through insect resistance management, or IRM.
Refuge plantings are one example of IRM in practice. This involves setting aside a percentage of a crop that doesn’t include the Bt trait. For example, if a farmer is planting a GM crop with the Bt trait, at most 80 percent of the crop would include the Bt trait, while the other 20 percent would serve as a refuge and not contain the trait (see examples below). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversees refuge plantings through industry compliance programs. This fact sheet from the University of Wisconsin explains refuge planting requirements for Bt corn in depth. (Image Source: http://www.bt.ucsd.edu/assets/refuge.jpg)
More information about the importance of IRM can be found at IRAC, which is an international association of crop protection companies established in 1984. IRAC serves as the Specialist Technical Group within CropLife International and is focused on ensuring the long term efficacy of insect, mite, and tick control products through effective resistance management for sustainable agriculture and improved public health.
Claim #3: GM crops that are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) harm earthworms because of glyphosate applications. This claim has been debunked. Amanda Zaluckyj from The Farmer's Daughter, USA blog explains in this post that glyphosate, when applied to crops, does not harm earthworms. Amanda explains what the EPA has to say about this issue. She states: As part of EPA testing, prior to certifying a pesticide for commercial use, the EPA wants to know how the chemical is going to affect other parts of the environment, not just the plant being sprayed. It found: “Based on current data, EPA has determined that the effects of glyphosate on birds, mammals, fish and invertebrates are minimal.” (Source: EPA RED Sheet, Image Credit: The Farmers Daughter)
For more information:
- Why Protecting Pollinators Is Top Of Mind
- Is it possible that bees die after pollination of GMO plants treated with herbicide?
- What is the effect of GMO crops on honeybees?
- Are biotech companies responsible for declining bee populations and health of the soil for pollinators?
- I had someone tell me that Roundup kills earthworms. Is this true or false?
- What influence do the Bt genes and the substances that they generate have on other insects and microorganisms in the soil?
The Balancing Act
Pollinators are vital to a healthy environment, including producing the food we eat, and the health of pollinators is a priority to everyone involved in agriculture. Many of the companies who participate in GMO Answers are working to provide solutions and best practices to help maintain the health and population of each species. We welcome your questions on what we’re doing to support pollinator health and populations and invite you to join us in these efforts!