Major retailers nationwide are selling significantly fewer plants that have been treated with a controversial pesticide that critics say are harmful to bees, according to a new study.
The study issued Tuesday found that 23 percent of flowers and trees sold by five national retailers with garden centers contained meaningful levels of neonicotinoids, or neonics, down from slightly more than 50 percent in 2014. The study was spearheaded by Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group, and the Pesticide Research Institute, an environmental consulting firm focused on pesticides.
“We think it’s pretty significant progress since we last tested two years ago,” said report co-author Tiffany Finck-Haynes of Friends of the Earth.
Haynes credited the shift to commitments to phase out the sale of plants treated with neonics made by retailers such as North Carolina-based Lowe’s and Home Depot. Home Depot, which has promised to stop selling plants treated with neonics by 2018, reported last year that 80 percent of its flowering plants were neonic-free.
The study found that retailers who have committed to a phase-out “are making significant progress toward that goal.”
Lowe’s has committed to phasing out neonics from the products it sells on its shelves as well as from its plants, while Home Depot’s commitment is limited to eliminating its use on the plants it sells, Finck-Haynes said.
Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, both of which have a major presence in the Triangle, are among the top neonic makers. Germany-based Bayer introduced the first neonic in the U.S. in 1994.
The two companies have long said their products did not hurt bees when used correctly.
Syngenta, cited statistics from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and others, and said in a statement issued Tuesday, “honey bee populations have remained stable in the U.S. and Europe and are dramatically rising worldwide.”
Although bee colonies have been dying at abnormal rates, beekeepers have managed to replenish their stocks sufficiently.
“Since neonics have been shown to pose no long-term risk to honey bee colonies when used appropriately, the unfortunate effect of the activitists’ campaign is consumers who lose choice on how to protect their lawns and gardens,” Bayer said in a statement. The loss of choice, the company added, can lead to “losing plants and flowers to damaging pests or resorting to other costly or potentially more dangerous pest control measures.”
The study was based on an analysis of plant samples – collected by environmental activist groups, among others – obtained from Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware, True Value and Walmart stores in 13 locations, including North Carolina. Ace, True Value and Walmart have not made any promises to eliminate neonics.
Finck-Haynes pointed out that a survey conducted last year by Greenhouse Grower, an industry trade publication, found that 74 percent of growers who sell plants to mass merchants and home improvement chains said they wouldn’t use neonics in 2016.
Commitments by retailers to phase out neonics – a group that includes Whole Foods and BJ’s Wholesale Club as well as Lowe’s and Home Depot – “are requiring grower vendors to reduce or eliminate neonicotinoid use,” the report states. “These policies are having an impact on the entire garden supply chain and setting unprecedented market trends.”