I was listening to the radio this afternoon while running errands, NPR of course. Apparently, monarch butterflies are going down fast and the evidence points to neonicotinoid insecticides as the smoking gun. A couple of new reseach papers being published suggest that the insecticides are dissolving in the ground water, migrating to milkweed plants, being taken up by those plants and poisoning the larva of the butterflies, not killing the larva outright but stunting them and making them less able to reach maturity. Neonicotinoids are also widely implicated in the die off honey bees and more recently, organisms higher up the food chain such as lizards, birds etc. These insecticides now represent about a third of all insecticides used. There is still lots of controversy surrounding the guilt of this class insecticides but then there always is when 2-3 billion dollars are at stake. Remember, it took decades to determine that smoking cigarettes was probably not so good for you.
Now for the scary part. Neonicotinoids are systemic insecticides. taken up by the plant (often from a seed treatment) and distributed throughout the plant. The plants are often vegetable plants that we all eat whenever we eat. Since the insecticides are systemic, you can’t scrub them off and you can’t peel them off and so we eat them.
Now, the chemical companies have looked at the toxicity of these compounds and sent their conclusions to the EPA which doesn’t have the time or energy or resources to test them themselves. Of course they are safe to eat.
Neonicotinoids are modified nicotine molecules and while nicotine is a natural product, I wouldn’t suggest that anyone eat it and if I had children, I wouldn’t let them eat it either.
A long time ago, I did a PhD thesis on why plants make nicotine. Long answer short, they make nicotine to kill creatures with central nervous systems like you and me. Neonicotinoids are modified in a number of different ways in order to take advantage of a subtle difference between the acetylcholine receptors in our nerve synapses, especially in the brain and those found in insects. These are the sites where nicotine binds, causing the release of the neurotransmitters that make smokers feel good when smoking. Neonicotinoids don’t get through the blood brain barrier and they have limited affinity for acetylcholine receptors in the rest of the body so they are metabolized and excreted from the body in urine much as natural nicotine is. So, does that make you feel better about eating nicotine derivatives? Boy I sure do. UNBELIEVEABLE, are they insane?
Most people seem to understand that these compounds are suspected of killing off the honeybees and they are outraged by it. What people seem to be unaware of is that they themselves are eating these same compounds whenever they eat a conventional salad, a cucumber, a tomato or pepper or French fries at a restaurant. So widespread is their use that they have become the most important weapon in conventional agriculture’s impressive arsenal.
So, I really didn’t mean to go down that dark rabbit hole of despair even though I have that tendency. I try never to end a rant like that with too much doom and gloom.
What do we do about it? Well, you are already doing it by being in a CSA in the middle of the winter. We don’t use neonicotinoids and so you won’t be eating them when you eat the veg in your box. A hundred years ago, farmers used lead and arsenic as insecticides. Now we think that hideous. A hundred years from now I think your grandchildren will think the same of our chemical fixes. In the meantime, limit your exposure and start looking for a summer CSA to join.(do be careful though as there are now several local conventional, chemical-using CSA’s jumping on the bandwagon). Knowing the source personally is the only real way to know what you’re eating.