White House Orders Agencies to Develop National Strategy on Pollinator Health

By Patrick Ambrosio  

June 20 — The White House has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agriculture Department and other federal agencies to establish a national strategy on pollinator health.

President Barack Obama, in a memorandum issued June 20, ordered establishment of the Pollinator Health Task Force to develop the federal government's strategy on understanding, preventing and recovering from pollinator population declines, foster public-private partnerships on pollinator health and educate the public on pollinator issues. The task force, which will consist of officials from at least 16 federal agencies, will be co-chaired by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The memo cites “severe” pollinator population declines, including the ongoing loss of commercial honey bee colonies, and declines in the number of migrating monarch butterflies.

“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,” Obama wrote.

The president ordered the task force to develop a national strategy over the next 180 days, including an action plan to study the health of bees and other pollinators, identify methods to reduce pollinator exposure to pesticides and target resources toward habitat restorations projects that will yield the greatest expected net benefits.

Neonicotinoid Studies Ordered

The presidential memo also directs various government agencies to take steps to increase and improve pollinator habitats.

The EPA was ordered to assess the effects of neonicotinoid insecticides and other pesticides and “take action, as appropriate” to protect pollinator health.

The agency in 2013 announced it would restrict the application of four neonicotinoid insecticides while bees are foraging and, in some conditions, while a plant is flowering.

The memo also orders the EPA to:

  •  expedite the review of new products designed to control pests that are harmful to pollinators;
  •  aid state and tribal agencies in the development of pollinator protection plans; and
  •  encourage the inclusion of pollinator protection and habitat activities into Superfund and green infrastructure initiatives.
  • The EPA said in a June 20 e-mail statement that the agency “will address the role of pesticides” in pollinator health.

    The memo also outlines numerous other steps to improve pollinator habitat, including an order that the USDA “substantially increase” the acreage and forage value of pollinator habitat in the Conservation Research Program and other department conservation programs. The USDA also was ordered to work with the Interior Department to develop best management practices intended to improve pollinator habitat on federal lands.

    Groups Optimistic on Action

    Larissa Walker, policy and campaign coordinator at the Center for Food Safety, told Bloomberg BNA June 20 that while the president's memo doesn't include specific details on what the EPA needs to do, she is optimistic the creation of a pollinator task force could lead to faster action.

    “We do see this as a positive step forward,” Walker said.

    Walker said that she was pleased the president's memo specifically highlighted the role of pesticides on pollinator health. She said that while the other steps in the plan related to improving pollinator habitats are important, the government needs to start by confronting the pesticide issue. If it doesn't, the improved habitats could just become additional areas that are contaminated with bee-harming pesticides, according to Walker.

    CropLife America, a national trade organization representing companies involved in the crop protection industry, said in a June 20 statement that the organization is “hopeful” that increased cooperation between federal agencies will result in “practical, science-based solutions.”

    Jay Vroom, president of CropLife America, said the presidential memo recognizes that multiple stressors, including poor nutrition, parasites and loss of forage lands, affect pollinator health. The organization will work with the EPA as the agency reviews any potential effects that pesticides may have on bees and other pollinators, Vroom said.

    EPA Urged to Do More

    The establishment of a pollinator health task force “does not go far enough” to protect pollinators from pesticides, according to Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth.

    Pica, in a June 20 statement, said the Obama administration should follow the lead of the European Union and immediately ban neonicotinoids until they are determined to be safe.

    A two-year ban on the use of the neonicotinoids clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam went into effect in the European Union on Dec. 1. U.S. environmental groups have repeatedly called on the EPA to take similar action, but the agency has not done so.

    Paul Towers, a spokesman with the Pesticide Action Network, said in a June 20 statement that the group is “cautiously optimistic” that the new pollinator task force will result in necessary protections for pollinators.

    “The proposed task force has its work cut out for it and should move quickly to address the issue of pesticides, a key factor in bee declines,” he said.

    Available scientific evidence illustrates the need for additional regulatory action to restrict the use of pesticides that pose a threat to pollinators, according to Towers.

    To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Ambrosio in Washington at pambrosio@bna.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

    The June 20 Presidential Memorandum is available at http://1.usa.gov/1qyePZi.