The Obama administration made a lofty promise with the launch of its National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and other Pollinators. Over the next five years, the feds will implement an interagency campaign to restore and improve 7 million acres of “pollinator habitat.” That may be a laudable goal. But the strategy fails to address one of the biggest threats to pollinator habitat: federal biofuel mandates.
This “National Strategy” emerged as a response to alarming news coverage about honeybee health. During the past couple of decades, beekeepers have experienced unusually high hive losses ranging more than 30 percent during winter hibernation. Fortunately, there is some good news: such over-winter losses have come down during the past few years particularly in Europe, and globally bee populations are doing well. Yet now some are concerned about losses during the summer, which have not been consistently measured.
Researchers have identified factors that create significant challenges to honeybees including: diseases and vectors that attack honeybees as well as poor nutrition associated with habitat loss and the resulting limited diversity of nectar-bearing plants.
Researchers list certain pesticides as potential stressors as well, particularly chemicals that beekeepers must use in the hives to prevent mites and other organisms from killing bees. Although often targeted as the culprit, evidence is lacking that certain agrochemicals from a class called neonicotinoids pose significant challenges, since their use is targeted and bee exposure is limited.
The best strategy should focus on the most obvious challenges: disease/vectors and poor diets related to habitat loss. Beekeepers, fortunately are addressing key problems associated with disease transmission, but habitat loss is a much tougher challenge that requires actions by more than just beekeepers alone.
Accordingly, among the many items in the $80 million-plus national strategy are plans to increase diverse foraging habitat for pollinators. Specific action items include spending millions of dollars for government gardens, such as the “white house pollinator garden,” as well as potential government land purchases and habitat enhancement on existing government land. Yet there are clearly limits to what the government alone can accomplish since pollinators also must forage on private land.
Fortunately, there is something the federal government can do to make private wildlife habitat more viable: eliminate the federal Renewable Fuel Standard. This mandate promotes excessive planting of corn by creating artificial demand for biofuels such as ethanol. Corn, which self-pollinates, has limited nutritional value to bees and other pollinators.
But rather than call on Congress to eliminate this biofuels mandate, the Obama EPA has proposed expanding the program. In a recent Regulatory Announcement, the agency says it’s “proposing volumes which, while be low the volumes originally set by Congress, would increase renewable fuel use in the U.S. above historical levels and provide for steady growth over time [emphasis added].” That will likely mean that farmers will plant yet more corn.
The impact of such mandates on wildlife habitat is substantial. A 2013 Associated Press investigation on the environmental impacts of biofuel mandates found:
According to the AP report, thanks in good measure to biofuel mandates, corn planting in 2012 alone increased by 15 million acres, and that was in just one year! Meanwhile the president’s pollinator strategy has set its five-year goal to “restore or enhance 7 million acres of land.” Certainly, they could do multitudes better if they advocated that Congress trash the biofuels mandate.
Consider that, as Jillian Melchior points out in a paper for the Independent Women’s Forum, 40 percent of the corn (numbers from the Congressional Budget Office) grown in the United States is produced to make ethanol!
To add insult to injury, the program does not save energy and is also a raw deal for consumers. Marlo Lewis of the Competitive Enterprise Institute points out: “[E]thanol contains about two-thirds the energy of an equivalent amount of gasoline. The higher the blend, the worse mileage your car gets, and the more you have to spend to drive a given distance.” And as Melchior also points out, ethanol mandates also increase the price of food!
So all consumers get is reduced energy efficiency and higher prices. The only clear beneficiaries of the biofuels program are corn growers and ethanol producers, who are well connected with lawmakers in Washington D.C.
If the administration really wants to help bees, it should seek to end these mandates immediately. It will save consumers at the pump, and require no new federal spending.
Elimination of such mandates is an idea that has the support from both left-of-center and right-of-center groups. In fact, a nonpartisan coalition of policy groups from diverse political perspectives have demanded reform for years.
It’s clear why politicians in Congress continue to defend corn ethanol: They want to support from corn-growing constituents. The question is why the Obama Administration would choose corn growers over environmentalists, consumers, and even the pollinators they claim to want to protect.