“Pesticide sellers have worked hard to convince American farmers that they need to use these toxic seed treatments. Now that we know that these treatments don’t even help farmers, EPA must take action to ban them,” one environmental watchdog tells MintPress.
WASHINGTON — Environmentalists and those pushing for the weakened use of chemicals in agriculture say they are bolstered by a new study from the U.S. government that strongly questions the efficacy of one of the most common pesticides used on soybeans.
The class of pesticides under investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency is known as neonicotinoids, or neonics. Similar to nicotine, neonics are today the most commonly used insecticide in the world. They’re also widely considered a key culprit behind the mysterious mass collapse among bee colonies worldwide in recent years.
Over the past decade, beekeepers in the United States have reported average annual mortality of nearly a third of their colonies. And during certain years and in certain places, these rates have been and continue to be far higher.
“Neonicotinoids are causing massive die-offs of pollinators such as honeybees, bumblebees and butterflies,” Lori Ann Burd, director of the Endangered Species Campaign at the Center for Biological Diversity, a watchdog group, told MintPress News.
“Pesticide sellers have worked hard to convince American farmers that they need to use these toxic seed treatments. Now that we know that these treatments don’t even help farmers, EPA must take action to ban them.”
Bees and other pollinators contribute some $24 billion to the U.S. economy each year, according to the U.S. government. While there is little consensus on the exact role that neonicotinoids have played in harming global bee populations, the science is strong enough to have led the European Union to impose a moratorium on the use of several of the most common of these products.
Both the Canadian and U.S. governments are likewise studying whether to take action. In an annual report released earlier this month, the environment commissioner of Ontario called for the provincial government to unilaterally ban neonicotinoids if the national government doesn’t act. According to a release, the commissioner, Gord Miller, called the compounds “the biggest threat to the structure and ecological integrity of the ecosystem that I have ever encountered in my life.”
In this country, however, the EPA has said it will not move on the issue before 2016. Nonetheless, for the first time EPA researchers have carried out a cost-benefit analysis on the use of neonics to treat soybean seeds, and the findings are stark.
“[T]hese seed treatments provide negligible overall benefits to soybean production in most situations,” the report states. “Published data indicate that in most cases there is no difference in soybean yield when soybean seed was treated with neonicotinoids versus not receiving any insect control treatment.”
The U.S. soybean sector is booming, and this summer the federal government forecast what could be a record harvest. Around a third of the country’s soybean producers – covering some 22 million acres – use neonic treatments, according to official data, a process that generally involves coating the seeds in the chemical before planting.
Yet the EPA’s new study points out that this early-season use does not actually overlap with the active periods of several of the most voracious crop-eating pests, suggesting instead that “much of the existing usage on soybeans is prophylactic in nature.”
While these seed treatments may not be thwarting many of the targeted insects, neonicotinoids do stay in the soil and in plants for long periods. In part, this is what makes them potentially dangerous to the bees and other pollinators that come and visit once those crops start to flower. The EPA also investigated multiple alternative pesticides, which the researchers found were comparable in price and efficacy.
It is unclear how either individual farmers or larger agribusiness interests will react to the findings, which are currently open to public comment. For now, many appear to be trying to digest the EPA’s findings. The American Soybean Association, for instance, told MintPress that it would be submitting comments on the analysis but was still looking at the EPA’s methodology.
CropLife America, a trade association representing the pest-management industry, likewise said it was continuing to review the findings. Still, a representative did suggest that the EPA’s analysis was only partial.
“Seed treatments, including neonicotinoid insecticides, provide numerous benefits to growers in the U.S. and abroad,” Ray McAllister, CropLife America’s senior director of regulatory policy, said in a statement sent to MintPress.
“EPA acknowledges that the data sources for their analysis are incomplete. We believe that a much more positive account of the value of seed treatments will emerge when a more robust body of information is considered following the announced comment period.”
McAllister also noted that seed treatments offer a “precise method of delivery, while minimizing potential exposure to growers, applicators, non-target species and the environment.”
Indeed, recent media reports from the United Kingdom have offered a mixed picture on the impact of the ban on three types of neonics, which went into effect this year. Farmers report using neonic alternatives that require the use of far more product than is needed with seed treatments, coating a field and potentially causing greater harm to beneficial bugs within the soil.
Still, environmental advocates in the U.S. are lauding the EPA’s study, and note that the findings aren’t new.
“EPA’s findings confirmed what a number of scientists have found in the past, that the prophylactic use of these pesticides offers no economic benefits in terms of crop yield or longer-term benefits,” Tiffany Finck-Haynes, a food campaigner with Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, told MintPress.
“But having the EPA confirm these findings is quite significant. We think EPA now has no excuse but to suspend this use to protect pollinators.”
Even as the regulatory process moves slowly forward, others are taking more decisive action, including within the federal government. In June, for instance, President Barack Obama signed a memorandum pushing federal agencies to take steps to promote the health of bees and pollinators. The state of Minnesota is currently considering a full ban on neonics.
Last week, the White House also released revised guidelines stating that trees, shrubs, grasses and other greenery planted on federal lands and around federal buildings – covering some 41 million acres and 429,000 buildings – should not be pretreated with pesticides at all. “Acquire seeds and plants from nurseries that do not treat their plants with systemic insecticides,” the guidelines state.
Advocates are now hoping that these new guidelines will convince commercial retailers carrying such items that a tide is shifting on this issue. The past year has already seen several notable decisions in this regard by major retailers, responding to mounting vocal public engagement on the issue. Even those close to the issue say that the level of public mobilization around pollinator protection – an issue that was on next to no one’s radar just a few years ago – is surprising.
“It is really incredible how this has grown, and today there is an impressive level of consumer demand on this issue, directed at the EPA, Congress and the marketplace,” Friends of the Earth’s Finck-Haynes said. “In response, there’s been a lot of movement over just the past year from companies, with over a dozen retailers taking steps to eliminate or label products with neonicotinoids.”
Home Depot, for instance, has agreed to label all of its plants that have been treated with neonics by the end of this year, and the home improvement chain is also looking into alternatives. BJ’s Wholesale Club has taken similar steps, as have the largest garden supply stores in the U.K.
These actions have been so marked that activists have been able to start targeting stores that thus far have refused to remove neonics and related products from their shelves. On Wednesday, some 30,000 people across the U.S. and Canada were planning on demonstrating at or near Lowe’s stores, asking them to take such actions.
Green groups say Lowe’s, a major home improvement retailer, is continuing to sell plants that have been pretreated with neonicotinoids and include no label alerting consumers. Organizers say they delivered a million petition signatures to the store’s management on Wednesday, asking for remedial action. Lowe’s did not respond to request for comment for this story.
Still, Finck-Haynes says that the actions taken in recent years by the government, retailers and consumers have yet to significantly benefit still-plummeting bee populations. Even in the EU, where the neonic moratorium remains in effect, she says the ban is only partial and there is no comprehensive monitoring set up to track the policy’s impact.
“Long-term, we’d like to see a transition to a sustainable agricultural system that best protects both pollinators and our broader ecosystem,” she said, “a system that does not rely on chemical-intensive practices.”