Home improvement store Lowe’s announced it will stop selling bee-killing neonicotinoid and plants treated with neonicotinoids, though the phase out will not be complete until 2019.
Lowe’s had been the target of protesters angry that the store was selling nursery plants that could poison pollinators because they’d been treated with neonicotinoids.
Neonics, as they’re known, are systemic pesticides that get inside plants, causing them to produce pollen that’s toxic to insects. Nursery growers use these chemicals to keep pests off the plants while they’re being cultivated. However, a plant can remain toxic to insects, putting consumers in the awkward situation of taking home plants whose blooms would otherwise feed bees, only to be inadvertently poisoning them.
Neonicotinoids, which are also used widely in agriculture, have been blamed for causing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the phenomenon that’s been killing off bees in massive waves across the planet since about 2006. The massive bee losses threaten food supplies, because many crops depend upon bees for pollination.
Experts point to other reasons that bees are dying, such as mite infestations and stresses caused by the loss of wildflowers. But enough experts now believe that neonics are a key culprit, and perhaps the main one, behind the loss of millions of honey bees. This led the European Union to ban neonicotinoids – specifically clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxamin – for two years, starting in 2013, to try to restore bee populations.
In the US, the EPA has tightened regulations on neonics, calling for labels that say: “Do not apply this product while bees are foraging. Do not apply this product until flowering is complete and all petals have fallen ….” But the EPA has not banned this class of pesticides.
Over the past two years, Friends of the Earth has drawn attention to this problem of consumer plants being pre-treated with neonicotinoids (often with a soil drench). The group has protested Lowe’s, Home Depot and Walmart for selling neonicotinoids pesticides and nursery plants imbued with neonics.
A study released by Friends of the Earth and Pesticide Research Institute, Gardeners Beware 2014, sampled nursery plants at Lowe’s, Home Depot and Walmart in 18 cities in the US and Canada and found that 51 percent contained neonicotinoids. Though not a peer-reviewed study, this experiment demonstrated that the bee-harming neonicotinoids were present and being carried home on plants by consumers.
The message got through.
Over the past year, 20 nurseries, landscaping companies and retailers including Home Depot, Whole Foods Markets and BJs Wholesale Club took steps to get rid of bee-killing pesticides, FOE reported.
The top garden retailers in the United Kingdom, where FOE is active, also have stopped selling neonicotinoids.
Now Lowe’s is “listening to consumer concerns and to the growing body of science telling us we need to move away from bee-toxic pesticides by taking steps to be part of the solution to the bee crisis,” said Lisa Archer, Food & Technology Program Director at Friends of the Earth in a statement today.
“Bees are canaries in the coalmine for our food system and everyone, including the business community, must act fast to protect them.”
FOE had partnered with two investment groups, Domini Social Investments and Trillium Asset Management, in its campaign, letting Lowe’s know that some investors would want to see a shift away from chemicals that jeopardize environmental health.
“Lowe’s public commitment will better position the company to meet the demands of an increasingly environmentally-conscious consumer base. And, it sends an important market signal that restricting the use of bee-harming pesticides is essential to tackling bee declines,” said Susan Baker, Vice President, Trillium Asset Management.
Lowe’s spokeswoman Karen Cobb said the company needed four years for the phase out because it needed time for “suitable alternatives to become available.”
Multiple alternatives already are available to control unwanted bugs in the garden, including other toxic (but not systemic) chemicals as well as organic products sold at Lowe’s and other garden centers. (We made note of this to Ms. Cobb, but she held firm on her contention that alternatives need to be found.)
The big question for consumers remains: How can I tell if it’s safe to take home flowering plants from Lowe’s in the years before 2019?
How will one know if a plant has been treated with neonicotinoids at Lowe’s in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018?
Cobb says they’re working on it. “We are in the process of working on some plant tags that will have information on pollinator health on them,” she said. And yes, this will happen sooner rather than later.
Tiffany Finck-Haynes of Friends of the Earth explained that these tags will take the form of neck hangers on neonic-containing shelf products to notify employees and customers.
Additionally, the company will work with its nursery suppliers to identify plants attractive to bees so that these can be spared neonicotinoid pesticides.
In some cases, neonicotinoid treatments will continue at the nursery supplies because they are mandated to prevent the spread of invasive insects. This may affect some ornamental trees and shrubs which can serve as hosts for the invasive bugs, but fortunately most bedding plants are not host plants and will not need to be treated, Finck-Haynes explained.
Despite the long lead time on Lowe’s planned changes, Ms. Finck-Haynes said FOE is happy they’ve signed on to make changes.
“Lowe’s is the second largest home improvement retailer in the world and it is the largest garden retailer to make time-bound, public commitments to phase out neonics,” she said.
“We believe this will have a ripple effect throughout the entire industry and we will continue to work with Lowe’s and other retailers to get bee-toxic pesticides off their shelves to ensure our backyards and communities across the country are safe havens for bees and other pollinators. We look forward to the day shoppers can buy home garden plants without worrying about harming pollinators.”