WASHINGTON, Aug. 31, 2016 - Minnesota farmers said they were blindsided by an executive order issued by Gov. Mark Dayton that could make it more difficult to apply neonicotinoid insecticides and plant neonic-coated seeds.

Of most concern is a proposed requirement that farmers obtain a “verification of need” in order to apply neonics. A farmer would have to show the application is needed “because of an imminent threat of significant crop loss” and would be “consistent with an (Integrated Pest Management) plan,” according to the state Department of Agriculture’s 120-page “Review of Neonicotinoid Use, Registration, and Insect Pollinator Impacts in Minnesota,” the basis for the four-page executive order that Dayton announced at the Minnesota State Fair on Aug. 26.

The MDA’s review “came out of the blue,” said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, in an interview. “We have more questions than answers.”

State Rep. Paul Anderson, chair of the legislature’s agriculture policy committee, said Tuesday he had “no inkling” that Dayton, a Democrat who’s held the governor’s office since 2011, was planning to issue the order. He said he had been trying since Friday to get hold of state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson, but “I haven’t heard back from him yet.”

Neonicotinoids have been blamed for declines in pollinator populations, particularly honey bees, but neonic producers such as Bayer CropScience maintain the evidence doesn’t support that conclusion.

“Bayer is committed to helping pollinators thrive and farmers produce safe, affordable and nutritious food for people,” the company said in a statement. “While there are some science-based actions in the governor’s executive order that will benefit pollinator health, taking tools from farmers without an open and transparent public discussion rooted in sound science does a disservice to everyone.”

Environmental groups cheered the state’s action. The governor’s action “is an encouraging indicator that decision-makers in Minnesota are serious about addressing alarming declines in bee populations,” said Lex Horan, Pesticide Action Network’s Midwest organizer. “In particular, the current review of neonicotinoids is an exciting opportunity for our state to step up to protect bees. The science is clear: neonicotinoids are the catalyst driving bee declines. Minnesota beekeepers and scientists have been tirelessly telling the public that pesticides are a critical part of the problem, and it’s encouraging to see that decision-makers are listening.”

The use of neonics to control soybean aphid in the state has increased steadily since 2004, the MDA says. But pollinators, which Dayton said are critical to the state’s $90 billion agriculture industry, have been declining in the state for a decade.

“Pollinators are vital to agriculture and agriculture is vital to the state of Minnesota,” Frederickson said in the press release issued by the governor’s office. “The governor’s action today underscores how important it is for the state to be a leader in the response to protect our pollinator population.”

Dayton, a former U.S. senator, also announced a Governor’s Committee on Pollinator Protection. “Up to 15 members will be appointed to ensure that Minnesota citizens have a seat at the table in shaping the solutions that will ensure a healthy pollinator population and the continued strength of our agriculture economy,” the governor’s press release says.

The Farm Bureau’s Paap and Rep. Anderson said they weren’t sure how farmers would be expected to demonstrate “imminent” pest threats to their crops, especially when it comes to purchasing neonic-coated seeds. Both men are farmers and said they are already weighing seed purchases for next spring.

“We order corn months before planting season,” said Anderson, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on his west-central Minnesota farm.

Gregg Regimbal, manager of MDA’s pesticide non-point section, said Monday the governor’s order signals the beginning of a process. MDA will work with the University of Minnesota and other stakeholders to come up with ways to determine pest thresholds that would allow neonic applications. The first crop they will look at will be soybeans.

“The MDA will ensure that applications of neonicotinoids are made only when a qualified individual verifies that there is a demonstrated pest problem and there is a need for neonicotinoid pesticide use,” the review document says.

Regimbal said it’s possible that farmers could self-verify their need for neonics. “I don’t think this is going to be a big burden,” he said. “Many of the farmers are trained and already have their applicator’s license. Certainly they should be able to use the products as they already have.”

The state’s plan also contemplates a Treated Seed Program, which would give the state authority to regulate seeds treated with pesticides, “fund research to develop need-based recommendations for the use of seed treatments, and may require that untreated seeds and seeds treated at lower pesticide application rates are available in the market,” according to the review.

But that program, along with a pollinator protection account that would fund an educational program and support research on “economic thresholds,” would require state legislation. And that’s where Anderson will play a vital role.

“I think that if (the governor) needs any assistance from the legislature, he would want to ask it for cooperation” before making an announcement of such magnitude, he said.

EPA is currently reviewing the impacts of neonicotinoids on pollinators but is not expected to complete its registration reviews until at least 2019. Minnesota’s action appears at this point to be the most ambitious of any state in attempting to restrict use of neonics. Oregon and Maryland have passed legislation, but neither state has required farmers to justify their use of neonics on major crops.


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