WASHINGTON, April 29, 2015 – The agriculture industry is anxiously awaiting the release of the White House National Pollinator Strategy, particularly how it will address the use of pesticides.
President Barack Obama established the Pollinator Health Task Force, co-chaired by the Secretary of Agriculture and the EPA administrator, in June, charging it with developing a national strategy to foster pollinator health, but the group missed its deadline for the report several months ago.
National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson and others expressed some of the agricultural industry’s concerns about the report at a news conference last week at the National Press Club.
“We need more credible, factual, research information before we have any kneejerk reactions saying this product or that product is the cause,” Johnson said.
Scientists have been concerned about declining pollinator populations for years. The concern heightened about a decade ago when researchers noticed workers bees from colonies abruptly disappearing, a syndrome that came to be known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). Most studies attribute bee losses to multiple factors, including the damaging effects of the varroa mite, the loss of forage and nutrition, as well as pesticide use.
Johnson said that more research should be the first priority in the White House strategy since “we really don’t know what’s causing these [bee colony] collapses, if you can call them that.”
Daren Coppock, CEO of the Agricultural Retailers Association, told reporters his group is also “concerned” about where the pollinator task force might be heading, given EPA’s regulatory tendency. “It causes me to believe there may be more political science than objective science” driving the EPA, Coppock said.
Environmental groups are putting pressure on the EPA to rein in agricultural chemical companies on the production and use of neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides often applied as a seed treatment that has gotten much of the blame for pollinator population decline. An EPA assessment of neonicotinoids and their use on soybeans -- "Benefits of Neonicotinoid Seed Treatments to Soybean Production” -- concluded there “are no clear or consistent economic benefits of neonicotinoid seed treatments in soybeans.”
USDA also criticized EPA’s report. Robert Johansson, the department’s acting chief economist, noted in a letter to EPA that “as a whole, USDA disagrees with that assessment.” EPA released the report “without additional consideration of other crops or to USDA cautions about releasing a premature assessment of the costs and benefits of such seed treatments,” he said.
A study by AgInfomatics, commissioned by Syngenta, Bayer and Valent U.S.A., focused on the economic benefits of neonicotinoids. Pete Nowak, author of the report, said that if farmers are forced to operate without the use of neonicotinoids, they will revert to older, more dangerous chemicals that may not be available as a seed treatment and must be sprayed onto crops.
“What’s going to happen to the pollinator then -- after exposing them to technology that will decimate them much more than neonicotinoids?” he asked during the press conference at the National Press Club.
Although the crop-chemical industry worries about defending its technology, Nowak said the soon-to-be released White House pollinator report should not call for any strict measures on pesticide use. “There is no science that allows them to take a firm stance one way or another,” he said.
What may be more concerning for the industry is how the government will proceed after the task force releases its report. David Zaruk, author of the RiskMonger blog on science and regulatory issues in the European Union, shared his investigation into the European Commission’s two-year ban on three types of neonicotinoid pesticides in December 2013, after they were linked to a decline in the bee population.
Zaruk said there is “a growing body of activist scientists” that devise research to conclude particular outcomes. He said the environmentalists’ strategy, “to manipulate by creating fear and sense of urgency,” convinced members of the EU Commission that banning neonicotinoids would provide the public the sense that the government had addressed the problem. However, after the first full year of the ban, Zaruk said some EU nations have had significant crop losses and in Germany, “”harsher pesticides were being used and were not effective…”
EPA is scheduled to review the registration of neonicotinoids in 2018. In the meantime, Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., have reintroduced the Saving America’s Pollinators Act.to suspend the use of neonicotinoids until EPA can review their registration and declare that they do not cause adverse effects to honey bees or other pollinators.
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