Ag experts: Neonicotinoid ban would hurt farmers, consumers, science

Several farming experts warn of potential industrial, economic effects from ban on neonicotinoid use on crops.
Several farming experts warn of potential industrial, economic effects from ban on neonicotinoid use on crops. | Contributed photo

Agriculture experts warned on Thursday that potential regulatory efforts to save bees could have serious consequences on farmers.

The discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., comes as the Obama administration advances bee-friendly recommendations and as the Environmental Protection Agency considers whether to approve neonicotinoid pesticides for any uses. Earlier this month, the agency sent letters to pesticide manufacturers informing them that new uses for those chemicals would likely not be approved until risk assessments on pollinators were complete.

Environmentalists applauded the move, but said it wasn’t far-reaching enough, while agriculture industry groups criticized it.

Pete Nowak, an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, raised the question on Thursday of what would happen if neonicotinoids were to disappear from agriculture use. He and other researchers studied the issue for several months, eventually concluding that the consequences would be extensive, from human health impacts to pest ecology.

In lieu of neonicotinoids, farmers would have to turn to other pesticides. Nowak, who is also a principal at AgInformatics, said this would greatly increase the amount of chemicals used.

“If you take away this one product, they still have pests to control and crops to produce,” Nowak said. “If you take away neonicotinoids, they are going to use another insecticide. Pests don’t go away just because a regulation has passed.”

Nowak also said that farmers would have to increase their spending on insecticides – from chemicals to applications – which would eventually drive up the costs of produce. That ends up falling on the American consumer, Nowak said.

Perhaps most revealing, Nowak said, was the reaction from farmers during listening sessions around the country.

“What these farmers told us is their level of frustration on how emotion rather than science is driving the debate,” Nowak said. “They feel very frustrated about this.”

David Zaruk, a European Union risk and science communications specialist, calls the problem a “commonality,” the idea that everyone agrees that a problem exists and that no further evidence needs to be collected.

That, Zaruk said, is what led to the banning of neonicotinoids in Europe. Rather than depending on science, activists instead used a good communications campaign to create fear about the future of bees.

The issues that have resulted from this policy decision are evident, Zaruk, who also runs the Risk-Monger blog, said. Farmers in Finland, Germany and the United Kingdom have reported losses, and harsher pesticides are being used. It’s expected that fewer pollen-rich crops will be planted this year.

“This is not scare-mongering,” Zaruk said. “These are facts.”

What it comes down to is the need for more robust science on pollinators and pesticides, Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, said. He also said that the discussion has taken a “predictable path,” from positional papers and studies to lawsuits. But to make good policy, there must be an objective look at the facts.

“It’s vitally important for everybody, regardless of their perspective on this particular issue, to insist on sound science,” Zaruk said.

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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

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