I have two criteria for plants that I buy for my backyard garden: They have to be capable of dealing with the hot, dry Southern California summers, and, especially if they aren’t fruits or vegetables, they have to be something nice to look at. For the most part, that means flowers, and I enjoy them not only for bloom and scent but for the various pollinators—bees, butterflies, hummingbirds—that they draw to the yard. And I don’t make a habit of killing my guests.
So when I was shopping at The Home Depot recently and saw a drought-tolerant shrub—some California native plant, the name of which I cannot recall—I was disappointed to see that the plant had been pretreated with neonicotinoids. That the label was there at all, however, was progress. It was just last year that The Home Depot enacted new transparency measures—before then, consumers had no way of knowing if a given plant had been treated with insecticide. The change was spurred by a study conducted by the environmental group Friends of the Earth that found 51 percent of plants purchased at The Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Walmart locations in 18 cities had been treated with the chemicals. On Thursday, The Home Depot, which has more than 2,200 locations in the U.S., said that it has stopped treating 80 percent of its garden plants with neonics, as they are called, and will phase out pretreated plants altogether by 2018.
While the change will make some yards a safer place for bees and the like, the chain will still stock insecticide sprays and other consumer products that contain neonics, and Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups see those products as their next target. (The Home Depot did not respond to a request for comment.)
“We will continue to challenge retailers to engage in a race to the top to move bee-toxic pesticides off their shelves and out of garden plants as soon as possible,” Lisa Archer, food and technology program director at FOE, said in a statement. “Bees are the canary in the coal mine for our food system and everyone, including the business community, must act quickly to protect them.”
The Home Depot moving away from neonics won’t make a dent in the widespread use of the insecticide in commercial farming: In 2010, some 5 million pounds of the insecticides were used in the U.S. agriculture sector, up sharply from 2005, when around 2 million pounds were applied to crops.