Manufacturers of neonicotinoids and the growers and applicators who use them are keeping a close eye on legislation in New York state that would ban the planting of corn, soybean and wheat seeds coated with the insecticides.

Either through legislation or regulation, a growing number of states – New Jersey and Maine, for example – have in the past few years restricted the use of the products to licensed applicators and banned spraying by homeowners in an effort to protect pollinating insects such as bees. But the New York bill, introduced in the Assembly and the Senate, would specifically prohibit the treated seeds used by row crop farmers, beginning in 2025.

“The delayed implementation date of the prohibition is intended to provide requisite time and notice for the commercial seed marketplace to offer untreated seed options that comply with the requirements of this legislation,” it says. The bill also mandates a state study on alternatives.

The bill would specifically prohibit sales starting in 2026 of seeds coated with five neonics – clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, dinotefuran or acetamiprid. It also would allow the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, after consultation with the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, to issue an order “determining that there is a lack of commercially available untreated seed or that compliance would result in undue hardship to agriculture producers.” 

“The bill would also ensure that the state is doing its part to protect pollinators by prohibiting the use of neonicotinoid insecticides on ornamental plants and turf, excepting agricultural products and instances where DEC determines that the use of such insecticides is necessary to manage, control or prevent invasive species.” Ornamental plant and turf uses would be banned starting in 2026.

California has proposed regulations restricting application methods and reducing rates for four of the neonics (less acetamiprid), while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is consulting with federal wildlife agencies on the impacts of three of them on endangered species, even as it conducts a registration review of the same five identified in the legislation.

Max MoncasterMax Moncaster, BASF

“The New York bill has been one that we've been especially keyed in on just because of the risk of the precedent that it might set,” says Max Moncaster, manager of public and government affairs at neonic maker BASF. 

If the Birds and Bees Protection Act were to pass, “to my knowledge, it would be the first law in the U.S. to address neonic seed treatments,” said Dan Raichel, acting director of the Pollinator Initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“That said, neonic corn and soybean seed treatments have been banned in the EU since 2013, and Canada (both the federal government and the provinces) have enacted restrictions over the last 5-7 years.”

In testimony on similar legislation in 2021, Adam Robertson of Seedway, speaking on behalf of the American Seed Trade Association, said, “EPA carefully considers effects on many non-pest organisms when they approve new insecticides for use. Following the directions for use on the registered pesticide product labels, as well as the precautionary and instructional information provided on treated seed labels, mitigates exposure of the pesticide to non-pest organisms, including honeybees.”

But in a blog post this month, NRDC's Raichel called neonics “phenomenally insect-toxic pesticides that may be the most-ecologically destructive we’ve seen since DDT — driving unsustainable losses of critical bee populations (and)mass losses of birds.” He also cited studies finding water contamination and effects on fisheries and humans.

NRDC and other supporters of the legislation maintain that corn and soybean growers in particular don’t get much benefit from the treatments. They, and the bill itself, cite a Cornell study from 2020 that found “routine use of neonicotinoid-treated seeds does not consistently increase net income for New York field corn or soybean producers.” However, it also found that for soybean growers experiencing “elevated pest pressure,” there were “significant benefits.”

The study also said the data “suggest significant benefits from neonicotinoid applications in New York’s major vegetable crops” and “consistent benefits in fruit crops: yield, crop damage, or pest control improved in 109 of 146 (75%) cases when neonicotinoid foliar sprays were compared to no-treatment controls.”

The legislation would allow continued use of neonic-treated seeds in fruit and vegetable crops, as well as applications in those crops and wheat, corn and soybeans.

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“Overall, the bill hews closely to the findings of the Cornell report—eliminating only uses that provide no overall economic benefits or are easily replaced with safer alternatives,” Raichel said. 

But Jeff Williams, director of public policy at the New York Farm Bureau, likened seed treatments “to any other kind of insurance vehicle. So, if there are pests that come that come in, then they have protection. If there’s no pest pressure there, they don't need it.”

If growers can’t use neonics, they will turn to other pesticides, many of which are worse for the environment than neonic-treated seeds, Williams said. 

In comments to EPA in 2020, the National Corn Growers Association said that without access to seed treatments, growers of corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum would see their costs increase by $848 million, nearly 80% of which would be borne by corn growers. Soybean growers would take a $100 million hit.

NRDC and other groups say the AgInfomatics study cited by NCGA is “biased” toward neonics.

EPA is expected to issue its interim decisions on neonics next year. The agency’s initial assessments were criticized by both grower groups and environmentalists, either for going too far in proposing mitigation or for not fully characterizing risks to pollinators and other species.

Williams said the New York Farm Bureau continues to cite scientific assessments done previously by state and EPA scientists, “who registered these products  … looking at the environmental health and human health and safety. I would much rather depend on actual scientists to make those determinations on human health, plant health and environmental impacts. State legislators don't have any scientific experience whatsoever.”

Scott McArt, an entomologist at Cornell and one of the authors of the study, said he thinks “the overall gist of the bill does a decent job of following the current science on this topic. There will always be a tension between agriculture and wildlife; the key is to find the sweet spot for managing land as sustainably as possible while also ensuring productive farms.

“This is especially important for pollinators since they contribute (approximately) $400 million in pollination services each year to New York’s agricultural economy,” he said in an email. “In other words, in addition to treating pollinators well for conservation reasons, we also need to treat them well for our own economic reasons. We must have a balanced approach.”

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