Beekeepers, experts, activists, indigenous and green groups have raised an alarm after far-right President Jair Bolsonaro-led Brazilian government approved a record number of pesticides – 290 to be precise – for use since the start of the year even as more than 500 million bees in four Brazilian states were found dead between December 2018 and March 2019. Beekeepers’ associations and agriculture authorities suspect this was caused by the widespread use of two classes of pesticides—fipronil and neonicotinoids—on flowering crops.
500,000,000 bees died in Brazil this year, with most showing traces of Fipronil, an insecticide banned in the EU and a possible human carcinogen according to US EPA
— Assaad Razzouk (@AssaadRazzouk) August 20, 2019
Pesticides containing neonicotinoids and fipronil are a threat to pollinators, people, and the planet. Neonicotinoids lead to an event known as a colony collapse, where thousands of bees suddenly die. Fipronil is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is banned by the European Union. Despite their inherent risks to pollinators, Bolsonaro has relaxed rules controlling pesticide use.
Brazil is already the world’s largest user of pesticides. The country’s pesticide use has grown by 770% between 1990 to 2016. The number of pesticides authorized each year has risen rapidly, from 139 in 2015 to 450 in 2018. As the agriculture ministry considers registration of an estimated 1,300 pesticides, mostly from MNCs based in the U.S., Germany and China, an even higher number is expected to enter the Brazilian market in 2019.
In Brazil, Bloomberg writes, the die-off highlighted questions about the ocean of pesticides used in the country’s agriculture and whether chemicals are washing through the human food supply—even as the government considers permitting more.
“The death of all these bees is a sign that we’re being poisoned,” Carlos Alberto Bastos, president of the Apiculturist Association of Brazil’s Federal District, told Bloomberg.
Brazil now has 2,300 pesticides registered for use—and the rate of new pesticide authorizations under the Bolsonaro government is unprecedented. Mongabay reports:
“In addition to the new products, a new regulatory framework to assess pesticide health risks was established in July that will reduce restrictiveness of toxicological classifications. Under Bolsonaro, 1,942 registered pesticides were quickly revaluated, with the number considered extremely toxic dropped from 702 to just 43.”
Why have more than 500,000,000 bees dropped dead in Brazil so far this year? pic.twitter.com/CKWMt4JABI
— Bloomberg TicToc (@tictoc) August 19, 2019
Yet, according to Bloomberg, about 40% of Brazil’s pesticides are ‘highly or extremely toxic,’ and 32% aren’t allowed in the European Union. Moreover, Marina Lacorte, a coordinator at Greenpeace Brazil, claims approvals are being expedited without the government hiring enough people to evaluate them.
Victor Pelaez, coordinator for the Observatory of the Pesticide Industry at the Federal University of Paraná in Brazil, blasts the Brazilian agribusiness industry for its practice of abundantly applying pesticides.
“Instead of assessing the level of insect infestation in a crop and then doing corrective work, they act preventively and apply pesticides in an indiscriminate way. It is like trying to prevent a cancer that you don’t have. They don’t need to keep monitoring the crop, which is much cheaper. It’s an agriculture characterized by saturation, not precision.”
This approach to agriculture has activists worried about the long-term consequences, in Brazil and beyond, especially because an estimated three-quarters of human food relies in part on pollinating insects like bees.
“There are around 20,000 species of bees worldwide that pollinate more than 90 percent of the world’s top 107 crops. Brazil is home to up to 5,000 of these species and 85 out of the country’s 141 crops depend on bees as pollinators.”
"We can draw a clear lesson from the looming insect apocalypse — if the tiny creatures that sustain life on Earth are disappearing, there is something alarmingly wrong with the way we are growing food."#SaveTheBeeshttps://t.co/YBF0Glg8Ee
— Friends of the Earth (@foe_us) August 18, 2019
Last century, Albert Einstein predicted that if bees disappeared off the face of the Earth, humans would only have four years left to live. The death of over half a billion bees, seen as apocalyptic at the time, now constitutes a real warning for humanity.