Ixnay On The Nics, Eh?

Is it time for an official Canadian ban on neonicotinoids for their devastating effect on bugs, birds and humans? Most experts say yes.

When neonicotinoid insecticides came into wide-spread use in the 1990s, farmers in Canada and around the world saw them as a godsend. Older pest-killers on the market weren’t working too well because bugs had evolved to evade their killing mechanisms. Plus, those older classes of chemicals were causing worries about toxicity to landscapes, water systems and other creatures that weren’t the targets.

In the decades since, neonics have become the most popular insecticides on the planet. Popular not in the sense of beloved, but in their extraordinary reach.

It’s not just that the chemicals are sprayed on crops as needed — although they are. It’s that seeds are coated in the stuff before they’re even planted, whether there’s the threat of a pest infestation or not. That goes for corn, soybeans, canola, wheat, bedding plants, vegetables, fruit and even tea plantations from China to India, from Africa to the US and Canada.

An exception is Europe, where most types of neonics were banned a year ago. Last year, an international group of more than 200 scientists from the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides called on Canada and other countries to follow suit. In April, Health Canada opted not to. Instead, it is cancelling and restricting some neonic uses and allowing the chemicals to be used on canola seeds and greenhouse vegetables, among others. The department is still assessing risks to aquatic insects. Meanwhile, Ontario has ordered cuts of 80 per cent to neonic use. The issue is that they are systemic pesticides, meaning the chemicals infuse every cell in the planet’s body, right down to flowers and pollen. So far, the highly publicized concerns are over what that means for birds and bees, collateral damage to the pests that eat up farmers’ crops.

The effect on bees is direct. Neonics are a potent neurotoxin that interferes with the pollinators’ (and other insects’) ability to think, killing or injuring them. Birds — some of whose numbers are already in steep decline — are mainly being affected indirectly, as the University of Saskatchewan ecotoxicologist Christy Morrissey and others have found. Many are going hungry because the toxins are poisoning the bugs they need to eat.

That’s scary enough. But now, another eyebrow-raising study has come out from the University of Saskatchewan. Biologists Rachel Parkinson and John Gray studied the effect of the neonic formulation Imidacloprid on locusts. Bad news, as it turns out. Locusts dosed with small amounts of the pesticide couldn’t figure out how to avoid bumping into things. Many forgot how to fly.

Worse, though, was that two of the chemicals produced as the pesticide degrades — called metabolites — were at least as toxic to the locusts as the pesticide itself and sometimes far more toxic. But when regulatory agencies tot up the concentration of neonics in the environment, those metabolites aren’t counted. Nor is the longevity of metabolites considered in overall toxicity.

All of that is alarming. But then there’s the line at the end of the study that waves even more red flags. It’s about something called “conduction velocity,” which refers to how fast connections flow across nerve tissue in the brain. The neonic and its metabolites interfered with conduction velocity in locusts, “which corresponds with effects measured in humans exposed to agricultural neonics,” the authors write.


Just how much research has been done on how neonics affect the human brain? A 2018 overview survey of about 100 studies said humans are being exposed to the pesticide in multiple ways, including by both air and mouth with unknown consequences. Another found that the chemicals have been detected in human urine, blood and hair.

A 2014 Harvard University study found neonic traces in every single fruit and vegetable tested, apart from nectarines and tomatoes, and in 90 per cent of honey, according to a review for the Ontario College of Family Physicians by Dr. Marg Sanborn. Six in 10 groundwater wells in potato-growing parts of Quebec had neonics, she said.

Those indicators are alarming enough for some scientists to call for large-scale studies on how the pesticides are affecting human health, particularly brain development and function.

What bothers me is how inexorable the unfolding of the problem feels. First, a pesticide is the brave new saviour for food crops. Then, there might be a few unwanted effects on other bugs. Then, lo and behold, bees are dying off. Birds are starving. Locusts are befuddled. And now there’s some evidence that these powerful, now omnipresent brain toxins might have the ability to affect human health.

All of this follows the pattern of every broad-scale industrial pesticide we have created. The conundrum: How do we grow enough food to feed us all and still honour the fact that insects are critical to the way our planet functions?

Learn more about neonics at BanWithAPlan.org

A Climate of Violence

What caused the little ice age? Many factors of course, but one study suggests that the devastating loss of life wrought by Europeans invading the Americas may have tipped the balance

How does Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage to the New World relate to the “frost fair” held on a frozen River Thames in London in 1683-84? A startling new study says the voyage led to the freeze, at least, in part. It’s the PhD work of geographer Alexander Koch of University College London, published in January in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

icebergThe speedy rise of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere from the moment the first steam engines started burning fossil fuels in about 1750 is well documented. The concentration has risen from 280 parts per million in the atmosphere then to 410 now. Before that steady rise began, the concentration was stable for thousands of years. That is, except for a period between 1550 and 1650, when it fell by about 10 parts per million (ppm). Why did levels drop?

Amazingly, Koch traces it to Columbus and his voyage to the Americas in 1492. It was then, in claiming the lands for Spain, that Columbus unleashed the savage and sweeping colonization of two entire continents.

Before Europeans arrived, the Americas were home to an estimated 55 million people, comparable to the 70 million to 88 million who lived in Europe at the time. These Indigenous Americans formed complex societies spread across what is now Canada, the United States, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and south into Inca lands and Amazonia. Their societies were complex. People who lived in what we call Mexico built complicated interconnected canals and sophisticated irrigation systems. The Inca built terraces across the slopes of the Andes to grow food. The peoples of southern North America harnessed the floods to grow their crops. Among the foodstuffs they grew were rice, cassava, chili peppers, maize, quinoa, cacao and fruit.

Then came Columbus and an unending trail of other Europeans with their livestock, those cauldrons of epidemics then unknown in the Americas: smallpox, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, diphtheria, typhus, cholera, malaria. It added up to genocide. In the Caribbean alone, the first European entry point, the population fell from about four million to a scant 22,000 by 1570, a drop of 99 per cent. In the Inca territories, just 670,000 of nine million were left by 1620, a drop of 93 per cent. A century after Columbus arrived, nine in 10 Indigenous inhabitants of the Americas were dead, on average.


It meant that whole societies that had relied on farming were destroyed. And that meant the land — roughly the area of modern France — went back to nature. As that happened, it sucked carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. In all, about half (roughly 5 ppm) of the drop in carbon concentrations in the atmosphere during this weird cooling from 1550 to 1650 can be pinned directly on the collapse of Indigenous American civilization, Koch concluded. Surface air temperatures around the globe fell by 0.15 C, on average, a period known as the Little Ice Age.

In London, from 1649 to 1700, the lower Thames, normally kept open by the salty ocean tides, would freeze up fairly routinely. During the ferocious winter of 1684, the river remained frozen (the ice eventually a foot thick) for a record seven weeks. In homes, denizens shivered, milk froze overnight, deer died in the forests. And London held its first full frost fair on the ice, setting up impromptu pubs, betting rings, stages, games and races, like a country fair.

prairiesTo Koch, the point of figuring all this out is to discern precisely when the Anthropocene began. The Anthropocene is a proposed new geological epoch now under consideration by scientists. It means the “new age of humans” and refers to the fact that humans are having an effect on the Earth’s systems as profound as, say, such geological events as asteroid hits and sustained volcanic eruptions. Some are pumping for it to begin at the time of the Industrial Revolution in 1750, others, at the time of the first atomic explosions. Now Koch is pointing to 1492.

His work is fascinating because it shows how political actions — in this case, colonization — can lead to unexpected shifts in the planet’s fundamental systems. It’s germane because it shows how immense and rapid are the changes unfolding in the planet’s carbon load today.

After all, the century of death and rewilding across the Americas drew down about five parts per million of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Today, with an economy dependent on fossil fuels, this same area is putting about three back in every year, and that pace is accelerating. Worse, we have no coherent plan to make it slow down, only goals.

It’s that pace that’s terrifying. And it’s the lack of a plan that, given the urgency of the risks, is unfathomable.

Reprinted from Canadian Wildlife magazine. Get more information or subscribe now! Now on newsstands! Or, get your digital edition today!


They Came From Below

Kilometres beneath our feet, deep in cracks under the Earth’s continents lives a vast, secret world of microbes

Every now and again, science comes up with a finding so revolutionary that it shakes up the way the rest of us see our planet. Those moments are pretty rare. I can point to only a handful in my life, including the time a very patient theoretical physicist from the California Institute of Technology explained quantum field theory to me. (Thanks, Sean Carroll!) I could never see the world the same way after that.

These are not the incremental — but important — findings that sharpen what we already know, like the news that more methane than ever is seeping out of Arctic permafrost, for example. Or that sea stars are melting like papier mâché, victims of a ferocious wasting disease. They are not like the discovery of a new species or the news flash that a creature once endangered has come back from the brink or the welcome research showing how an animal is adapting to planetary change.

These are the mind-blowers. And one showed up on my doorstep late last year.

It turns out that kilometres beneath our feet, nestled deep in crustal cracks under the Earth’s continents and far below the seabed floor lives a vast, secret world of microbes.


Most are strangers to science. But because of novel scientific drilling techniques and DNA sequencing, scientists are beginning to find them. It’s all part of the Deep Carbon Observatory project that has been going on for about a decade, run by hundreds of scientists across dozens of countries.

They’ve come up with a bunch of ways to describe this newly discovered part of the planet: microbial dark matter. The Galapagos of the deep. The life of the Stygian sphere. The creatures themselves are mainly bacteria and single-celled archaea (microbes with no nucleus). And they are weird. Far weirder than their relatives on the surface. These fellows survive the underworld equivalent of fire and brimstone. They live under unimaginable pressure in high-temperature extremes long believed inimical to life. They manage with no light and almost no food, some nourished only by the meagre energy shed by rocks.

Some individuals seem to have existed for millions or even tens of millions of years trapped in a state of suspended animation. It’s like something out of science fiction. They don’t divide or grow. They are barely alive. How do they do it? Are they zombies, never capable of revival? Or are they just in purgatory, waiting for the moment when they can spring back to full life? Scientists don’t have a clue.

What they do know is that there are a lot of these microbes of the netherworld. Scientists calculate that 70 per cent of the planet’s bacteria and archaea live in these underground lairs. That means there are more inside the Earth’s crust than on top of it.

This space, dubbed the “deep biosphere,” is twice as big as the volume of the vast global ocean, making it the biggest ecosystem on the planet.

And it’s a massive carbon store. There’s so much life hidden in the innermost reaches of the crust that it contains anywhere from 245 times to 385 times more carbon than that held in all the humans now alive. Not only that, but these odd creatures are similar no matter which part of the planet’s deep recesses scientists sample. What’s underneath Seattle, Washington, is similar to what’s underneath South Africa.

So what does it mean? For one thing, it’s likely to redraw the tree of life, the schematic showing which species evolved from which. Is this dark world where life on our planet originated? Or did life seep into the crust from the surface and then evolve into wholly new forms?

Can these communities of underworld microbes move? Do they rely on earthquakes or tectonic plate movements in any way? Are they affected by waste products that humans are injecting into the deep Earth?

Perhaps most intriguingly, how are these new microbes connected to their cousins on the surface, if at all? Are they part of the planet’s biological cycles? Geological cycles? Chemical ones?

So far, we don’t have the answers. But isn’t it intoxicating to think of all that life underneath us, going about its business for millions of years, maybe influencing how our lives unfold? What else don’t we know?

Prophets of Loss

Sometimes it’s the little things that reveal the big picture.

Consider a recent paper in Nature about how plants in the tundra, the coldest ecosystem in the world, are growing taller now as the climate warms.

What are the implications? Will the taller plants absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, offsetting some of the warming? Or will they help heat up the soil even more in the winter as they increase decomposition rates, releasing yet more of the massive amount of carbon the soil stores? So far, that’s unknown. What is known is there are massive changes afoot in an ecosystem that is warming more quickly than any other part of the planet. And with that comes a pressing need for the world’s species to adapt swiftly to new conditions if they are to survive.

Sometimes larger truths are made apparent by putting all sorts of little trends together into a sweeping analysis. Take the latest Living Planet Report from the World Wildlife Fund, published in October. Its authors looked at nearly 17,000 individual populations of animals with backbones — mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians. In all, that amounted to about 4,000 species. In just 44 years, from 1970 to 2014, their populations dropped in size by an average of 60 per cent.

Put another way, human activities have halved those populations — on average — in less than 50 years. In the densely biologically diverse South and Central America and the Caribbean, the average population drop is 89 per cent.

The mechanism? As the WWF puts it, it’s still mainly guns, nets and bulldozers. But now, it’s also heat, toxins and invasive creatures taking over.

That’s a lot of death. And it’s swift.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which compiles the Red List of endangered species, also came up with some new numbers in 2018. Of the 93,000 or so species it has assessed, more than 26,000 have populations so severely diminished that they are at risk of extinction. That’s more than a quarter.

Again, that’s a tremendous amount of death. Not only that, but today, 872 of the species we once shared the planet with have gone extinct, and another 1,700 are on the brink.

This matters because we know that sometimes, conditions on the planet spiral out of control; things change so swiftly that species don’t have the chance to adapt like the plants of the tundra are doing. The result: a mass extinction. That phenomenon has happened just five times over the 4.6 billion years that Earth has been here. The last one, 65 million years ago, killed off the dinosaurs.

So the great question is this: Does all the death that the Red List and the World Wildlife Fund are chronicling mean we are in the throes of the sixth mass extinction?

Paul R. Ehrlich says yes. Ehrlich is the Stanford University biologist who came to fame in the 1960s with his book The Population Bomb. Back then he predicted humans would overwhelm the Earth’s ability to support us. Only a technological revolution in agriculture could avert disaster. Now in his 80s, Ehrlich along with two co-authors has produced a new analysis. Human population numbers have kept growing exponentially. But in the process, we have wrought what he and his two co-authors call “biological annihilation.” Ehrlich says it’s not enough to look at which species are close to extinction: we need to look broadly at what has happened to different populations in the last century and what happened to their habitat.

Their analysis looked only at land-dwellers with backbones — terrestrial vertebrates. Even in species the Red List considers to be of least concern, they found high death rates: ranges have shrunk, some local populations have been wiped out, and remaining populations have seen sharp declines though they don’t yet rank as endangered. Ehrlich calls this “population decay.”

The point is that the planet is losing the exquisitely evolved networks that support life as a whole, and with it we are losing the planet’s collective genetic memory. And the question is, what if, as the planet changes so fast, species need that vanishing genetic information to survive?

Reprinted from Canadian Wildlife magazine. Get more information or subscribe now! Now on newsstands! Or, get your digital edition today