It began with a short exchange as a longtime volunteer taught us how to monitor our Bluebird boxes. He explained that the environmental research center where the bluebird boxes are located rent out the farm fields on the property to local farmers. “For several years, these fields were covered in hay,” he said as we walked the perimeter of the fields. “On average, we fledged 200 Bluebirds each year. Last year, they planted corn – GMO corn – here. We only fledged 130 Bluebirds.” Questions bounced around in my head. Was it a causal relationship or coincidence? Why would GMO corn hurt the Bluebirds? Why do we need GMO crops, anyway? What’s going on here?
Eastern Bluebird, Pt. Lookout, Maryland, February, 2014
The link between the GMO corn and the Bluebirds has to do, not so much with the corn itself, but with the chemicals used to treat the corn. Genetically engineered crops are genetically modified, in part, so that the plant will survive the increasingly toxic herbicides and pesticides with which they are treated. Of particular concern is a relatively new class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, derived from nicotine, a natural insecticide. The neonicotinoids cause paralysis and eventual death when consumed by organisms. They were developed in the early 1990’s to combat crop pests that had become increasingly resistant to older generations of insecticides. They are now the most widely used insecticides in the WORLD. There are over 300 types of neonicotinoids used in the United States today. They are used to coat seeds, in crop sprays, in granulated spreads for pastures and parks, and in lawn and garden sprays and granules for suburban use.
So, what’s the problem?
Well, first of all, these are acutely toxic chemicals. They don’t discriminate between bad insects that devour crops, and good insects like bees and other pollinators. In fact, they are so potent that they are acutely toxic for birds as well. According to a study sponsored by the American Bird Conservancy in 2013, “A single corn kernel treated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird.”
Secondly, this class of pesticides is highly persistent, lasting up to 19 years in the soil. Compounding this level of persistence is that most of the pesticide leaches into the soil, where it washes out into the water system. Data on surface and ground water contamination from California and the Great Plains indicate that levels of neonicotinoids in run-off waters are so high that it’s contaminating surface and ground waters, and impacting the aquatic food chain – it’s killing the aquatic invertebrates. In other words, it’s so effective that it’s destroying the food supply – the insects and the invertebrates – upon which so many bird species depend.
Additionally, the combination of the persistent nature of the chemical along with it’s pervasive use (90% of the corn and 95% of the soybeans produced in the United States are GMOs, laced with these pesticides), means that they are available to birds chronically, leading to reproductive toxicity. Again citing the 2013 study sponsored by the American Bird Conservancy, “As little as 1/10th of a neonicotinoid-coated corn seed per day during egg-laying season is all that is needed to affect reproduction.”
Eastern Bluebird, Schoolhouse Pond, Upper Marlboro, Maryland, March, 2014
So, back to my 23 Bluebird boxes. Does any of this relate to the declining numbers of fledgling birds at this particular sight last year? I suppose it would take a longitudinal, scientific study to come to any conclusions about that. What this line of questions has done is to raise my level of awareness and knowledge regarding the impact of genetically engineered crops and the use of increasingly toxic chemicals to treat those crops on the environment. Hopefully, it’s raised some questions and some eyebrows among my readers. For those of you who would like to read more, I am including the sources of information used to write this essay. Let’s learn together.
Main, Emily. (March, 2013). “First the Bees, Now the Songbirds: Pesticides Silencing America’s Songbird Population.” Retrieved from http://www.rodalenews.com/pesticides-and-songbirds
mercola.com. (June, 2013). “Ecosystem and Food Supply Threatened by Gross Underestimate of Toxicity of Neonicotinoid Pesticides.” Retrieved from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archieve/2013/06/18/neonicotinoid- pesticide.aspx
Mineau, P. & Palmer, C. (March, 2013). “The Impact of the Nation’s Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds.” Retrieved from http://extension.entm.purdue.edu./neonicotinoids/PDF/TheImpactoftheNation’sMost WidelyUsedInsecticidesonBirds.pdf
Monbiot, George. (August, 2013). “Neonicotinoids are the New DDT Killing the Natural World.” Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2013/aug/05/neonicotinoids-ddt-pesticides-nature
Paul, K. & Cummins, R. (Feb, 2014). “GMOs are Killing Bees, Butterflies, Birds and… ” Retrieved from http://www.organicconsumers.org/essays/gmos-are-killing-bees-butterflies-birds-and