The battle between man and plant-sucking bugs

By Blake Hurst

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Some marriages break up on the rocks of infidelity. Drink, illness, and financial misfortune can all result in unhappiness, grief, or even divorce. Our happiness, the happiness that has blessed Julie and me during our nearly 40 year long union, has seen trials, disagreements, and even a few rocky patches. None worse than the threat posed by aphids. Julie is a horticulture perfectionist, a grower of ornamentals with a passion for creating beauty. She has no patience with pests, no brief with freeloaders, and sees the slightest insect infestation as an affront to her green thumb, as a threat to the established order, as a tremor in the very earth under her feet. Julie hates aphids.  

Those sucking, crawling, piercing, asexually reproducing, slime producing banes of greenhouse farmers everywhere can strain the sunny disposition of the most indefatigable grower of ornamentals. Those often translucent members of the insect superfamily Aphidoidea leave a slimy honeydew on the plant which encourages mold growth in unsightly black deposits. Here's a shocking revelation: you can tell consumers this is natural, organic, and will dissipate when the plants leave the garden center for the garden, but she will not believe you. Nature, red in tooth and claw, or in this case black and slimy, is just too much for your average yoga mom. She wants everything natural, but to her natural is pretty. She'd just as soon the battle between man and plant sucking bugs go on somewhere else, and she is decidedly on the side of man, as long as he doesn't use neonics.

Lets Talk Food

You see, neonics, a fairly new class of insecticides, are being attacked as responsible for harming honey bee populations. Bees are very good things and are suffering from something called Colony Collapse Disorder, which first appeared around a decade ago. There is much disagreement and even confusion about the cause of the malady, and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the United States Department of Agriculture, as well as most other reputable researchers, are quite frank that the cause is not well understood.

It doesn't matter. It's now accepted that we're about to run out of bees and that neonics are responsible. Except that none of this is true. Pollinators are important, but their numbers aren't declining. Honey bees are not natural to the United States; they are raised and moved around by beekeepers much like livestock. The quite predictable response by beekeepers to CCD has been to increase the number of hives. The total number of hives in the U.S. has actually been growing for several years, and in 2014, the number of bee hives reached the highest number in twenty years.

Not only that, but the science on whether neonics are particularly harmful to bees is far from clear. The USDA and the EPA don't see neonics as a huge concern to bee health. University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum, chairwoman of a National Academy of Sciences study, is “extremely dubious” that ending the use of neonics will benefit bee health. A British government commissioned review of the literature,carried out by scientists from Oxford, led the leader of the study to remark: “The evidence so far points to a lack of effect on honeybee colonies from neonicotinoids.”

None of these studies asks the most important question, which is not so much a question about the harm done by neonics, but rather how does that harm compare to the risks from available alternatives? When neonics were first introduced to the market, they were welcomed as being less toxic to bees and particularly birds than existing insecticides. And those toxic chemicals are the ones farmers will return to if we lose the ability to use neonics. As long as those aphids are sucking on Julie's plants, we will live in a less than perfect world. It's great fun standing up for pollinators and buzzing bees and beating on “big ag,” but the cure for neonics will be considerably worse than the disease.

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All of this was brought home to Julie and me when Home Depot and Lowe's announced that they will phase out plants that have been treated with neonics. Here at Hurst Greenery, we don't sell to either of those companies, but we've been quizzed by our largest customer on our use of neonics and we were quite frank in our response. These chemicals are essential to our business; the substitutes are more harmful to the environment and much more dangerous to those of us who work in the business; and we will not quit using neonics short of an ultimatum forbidding their use. We have a mental list of flowers that we simply will no longer grow without neonics, and, oh, by the way, we operate on margins of about 5% of sales. Prices will have to go up.

We in agriculture are often informed that the customer is always right. Folks on one side of the continuing dustup about farming methods are quick to remind us of that fact. But it is not necessarily true. In order for any business to succeed, it must please the customer. Capitalism delivers its wondrous bounty because businesses compete for the approval and dollars of customers. Businesses that best supply those wants and needs will be successful, and businesses that don't listen to their customers will fail. That's a given, but it doesn't mean that customers are “right.”

I once had a rather heated discussion with an executive who contributed to the decision to reformulate Cheerios as GMO free. Facts be damned, she said, we were about to lose the brand! Well, they made the change, but it is not at all clear that consumers have responded positively, as sales of the flagship cereal brand have continued to lag. I reminded her of the durable rumors about Proctor and Gamble and Satanism. Although that company did eventually change its logo, Proctor and Gamble didn't conduct an exorcism or contract with preachers for testimonials, and they didn't react to those rumors as if they were guilty of something wrong. In fact, they famously sued at least one competitor who was purportedly spreading the rumor and won a very tidy settlement.

But telling your customers that there is more to the story is complicated and hard. Increasing the costs and dangers to your suppliers is easy. Greenhouse growers supplying Lowe's and Home Depot are putting on respirators and chemical suits, cancelling orders of fuchsias and maybe even chrysanthemums, (two plants particularly attractive to aphids) and hoping that the retail consumer won't rebel at higher prices.

Although it's only anecdotal, we do keep bees just outside of two acres of neonic treated greenhouses, surrounded by thousands of acres of neonic treated corn and soybeans. The honey is delicious.  

#30

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