Opinion: Pollinator Decisions Should Be Based on Science - Not Hype

By Guest Author

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By Sue McCrum

The White House recently released its National Pollinator Health Strategy, charting a path forward with policies that may affect popular farm products.

Because pollinators play a critical role in maintaining diverse ecosystems and supporting agricultural production, President Barack Obama outlined ambitious federal goals for reducing honeybee colony overwintering losses, increasing the Eastern population of the monarch butterfly and restoring or enhancing habitat.

As American women and leaders involved in agriculture, American Agri-Women understands the value of pollinators. Clearly product stewardship and best-management practices are more critical than ever to protect bees and other pollinators around farm operations and fields. However, we call on the Administration to ensure that all potential pollinator issues raised in the report are looked at carefully with sound science at the core of any investigations and subsequent decisions. Furthermore, we ask that the science not be swayed by emotions, especially when it comes to the use of approved pesticides on our farms, including neonicotinoids which have recently come under fire. As the Strategy notes, we need to “balance the unintended consequences of chemical exposure with the need for pest control.” Neonicotinoids -- commonly referred to as neonics -- play an important role in many farmers' pest control management plans.

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We must recognize that, to date, emotions have played a role in the discussion about pollinators, including overestimating any decline of honeybees. The White House Strategy acknowledges this fact when it points out that there have been no declines in the overall population of honeybees in the United States since neonics were introduced to the market in the mid-1990s. The declines the report points to started much earlier, right after World War II, when the face of farming was changing dramatically and many small farmers, each with their own bee hives, were vanishing from the landscape.

We all share concerns that beekeepers face in keeping their hives healthy, and overwinter losses, while declining, are still too high. But as the Strategy rightly highlights, the number one problem for bees since the 1980s has been the parasitic varroa mite, which vectors in all sorts of diseases and makes beekeeping an increasingly difficult operation. For one thing, beekeepers are forced to use insecticides inside the hive to try to control for varroa without killing the bees themselves. That's why support for new and innovative solutions to control varroa, as the report points out, is so terribly important.

But despite the facts included in the Strategy, the movement to restrict neonics seems to be moving forward on its own momentum. Farmers know the products by their popular names, Poncho, Cruiser, and Gaucho. Most often used as a seed coating, they get taken up into the plant to become part of its internal defense system, killing only insects that attack the growing crop. They provide higher crop yield to farmers by reducing the loss of plants to invasive pests.

Last fall, the EPA surprised farmers with a seemingly rushed report claiming that neonics did not provide economic benefits to soybeans, an assertion that has been completely rejected by many national farm organizations, who point out that soybean farmers have no other defense against below ground pests. Meanwhile, econometric studies demonstrate neonics improve soybean yields by 3 percent, which any farmer knows is a very real benefit. Even the USDA weighed in, calling the report “premature” and “incomplete.” But many widely saw it as a first step toward imposing restrictions. In fact, in April of this year, the EPA announced that it would not allow any new or modified uses of neonics until it completes an accelerated review process on them.

We hope and trust that this re-review will adhere to the highest standards of sound science and will not, like the EPA's soybean study, be unduly rushed. We hope too that it will not be influenced by emotions, and the inflated claims and political pressure being exerted by activist groups. Time and again, we have seen their claims punctured by the facts. For example, recently a leaked memo revealed that researchers for the prestigious environmental group the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) agreed ahead of time to fabricate their studies as part of a campaign to get neonics banned. Unfortunately, this wasn't discovered until after the European Union banned neonics completely. Since then, rapeseed crops in Germany and Great Britain raised without neonics have experienced massive flea beetle infestations. It's thought that the output of rapeseed may fall to a three year low in 2015. In other words, politics first, science second - or not at all.

We need to ensure that the same thing doesn't happen here in the United States. As the regulatory process goes forward, we need to be sure that these decisions - which can dramatically impact our ability to grow food and fiber- are made on the basis of sound science - and only sound science. 

Sue McCrum is President of American Agri-Women

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