President Obama elevated the issue of pollinator declines to a new level this year by establishing a national strategy plan for improving pollinator health. The fact that we even have a national strategy to tackle pollinator declines is quite incredible in and of itself, and the president’s attention to this issue has been encouraging at a time when U.S. beekeepers need it most. Yet, even though the White House put forth a number of good ideas, and several ambitious goals (like significantly reducing honey bee overwintering mortality rates and exponentially increasing the monarch butterfly population), the strategy lacks definitive actions, especially when it comes to fixing our pesticide problem.
On the whole, the strategy relies on four key elements to achieve its goals of improved pollinator health and population sizes: more research; more public education and outreach; increased and improved pollinator habitat; and public/private partnerships. Nowhere in these four areas are pesticide problems tackled head on. This is quite surprising considering the fact that the White House did express concern over pesticides, stating, “It is the misuse and overuse of these pesticides that leads to adverse ecological and human health consequences.” Yet the most egregious overuse of pesticides in this country – pesticide seed coatings – was disappointingly ignored, with no effort made to rectify the issue or even recognize the extent of the problem.
Pesticide seed coatings have quickly come to dominate the seed market. In the early 2000s, chemical companies developed a technology to treat crops with a new class of insecticides, known as neonicotinoids, by coating the chemicals onto the vast majority of seeds for annual field crops, like corn, soy, canola, wheat, and cotton. Neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides, meaning they are absorbed into the plant’s tissue and the residues are present throughout all parts of the plant, including pollen and nectar. Neonicotinoids are also extremely toxic, persistent, and mobile – they can last for several years in the soil after application, accumulate over time, and easily move from soil to nearby water bodies. This also means they’re likely to contaminate nearby plants, including wildflowers. Farmers are using these chemicals in the same fields year after year on more than a hundred million acres across the country, making huge swaths of our farmland and surrounding areas extremely toxic to pollinators.
But perhaps the biggest problem with seed coatings is that they are used prophylactically – whether insecticides are needed by farmers or not. Farmers may not even have a pest problem in their fields, but they’ve essentially been sold an unnecessary insurance package by chemical companies and seed distributors. Researchers estimate that 95-99 percent of all corn seed in the U.S. is coated with a neonicotinoid. Not only is it nearly impossible for farmers to access uncoated corn seeds, but research has already indicated that these neonicotinoid seed coatings don’t always provide farmers with the benefits they were marketed to deliver. And in some cases, seed coatings can actually do more harm than good for farmers. A recent study by Pennsylvania State University researchers observed that neonicotinoid-coated soybean seeds led to a slug outbreak and negatively impacted yields. Another problem is “bundling” of insecticides. A farmer may only want to use a biological pest control, but because of bundling practices, they can’t buy it without also having the seeds coated with a neonicotinoid. An example of this is Bayer’s Poncho/VOTiVO soybean package. This system may be a good way for companies to sell products, but it doesn’t help farmers do what’s best for their fields or pollinators, and it certainly doesn’t reduce the impact of pesticides on the environment.
This unnecessary application of chemicals is the epitome of an ‘overuse of pesticides causing adverse ecological consequences’ – and yet, the White House has completely ignored this growing problem. Neonicotinoid seed coatings eliminate farmer choice in the marketplace, threaten the healthy functioning of farm ecosystems, and pervade and contaminate every aspect of a bee’s environment – its food, its water, its entire habitat. The European Union formally recognized this threat in 2013 and voted to suspend neonicotinoid use on many bee-attractive crops and the Province of Ontario just issued a plan to cut seed coating use by 80 percent due to their overuse and the resulting damage to bees and the environment generally.
The White House seems to be more interested in working at the edges of the problem, by calling for yet more research on pesticides, rather than dealing with the crux of the issue head-on and taking action against the widespread abuse of pesticide-coated seeds. More immediate action can and should be done, and it needs to start with seed coatings.
Walker is Pollinator Campaign director at Center for Food Safety in Washington, DC. Naylor farms corn and soybeans in Iowa, is former president of the National Family Farm Coalition, and is on the Board of Directors for Center for Food Safety.