A major compilation of 15 studies is helping push back calls for the banning of neonicotinoid insecticides, largely to protect pollinators. The study says such a ban would bring with it massive costs — in the hundreds of millions of dollars — for North American farmers. The trickle down costs for the rest of the economy would run well into billions of dollars.
The collective study (commissioned by the Growing Matters consortium including members Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, and Valent) was co-authored by Pete Nowak, principal of AgInfomatics and Paul Mitchell, associate professor, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Wisconsin, Madison. In mid-February Nowak spoke with Delta Farm Press about his findings and why producers must speak up. Among his comments:
What are the underlying reasons for the studies?
“It’s really quite simple: if you want to regulate something you must understand the value of it. While the registrants — the manufacturers of neonic insecticides — know what the market sales were, they didn’t have a handle on the full value. So, they came to us, an independent agriculture research firm, and asked us to explore the value of neonics in North American agriculture.
“Our charge was to go out and establish value so that anyone wanting to place a ban on neonics understands what is at stake. That’s on either the national level, the EPA, or on the local level — municipality, county, state. So, we’ve provided the values of neonics and the decision-makers can make educated decisions now. Here’s the cost, here’s the value to our growers. Are we willing to give those up?”
What did you find?
“There were 15 different reports that we produced. Nine dealt with agriculture and six were on the turf and ornamental industries.
“Looking at the agriculture studies, it will cost growers of the eight major commodity crops — for your readers in the Mid-South, cotton, corn and soybeans are included — $848 million to make the transition to a non-neonic future. If they’re completely banned, that’s a hefty price tag.
“Where would those millions of dollars come from? Well, growers would have to give up on seed treatments and go largely with foliar applications. They’d make multiple foliar applications and some would have to reinvest in spraying equipment. Many have sold off that equipment they once used.
“There would also be increased scouting costs. Seed treated with neonics means protection for five or six weeks until the plant is well out of the soil and established. Without that, scouts would have to come in very early.”
On the value to various crops…
“Currently, based on surveys of roughly 1,500 growers in the United States and Canada, growers of corn, soybean and canola place a value on neonics at $1.5 billion. We ran some larger models and found that if we must make the transition to a non-neonic future, consumers — largely those buying corn, soybeans, and poultry and livestock — would have a bill of some $4.5 billion. Prices would have to rise and those would be passed to the consumers.
“The EPA came out with a report saying there was no yield advantage in using neonics in soybeans. Well, that finding is erroneous. There is a significant yield advantage in using neonics in soybeans — approximately a 2.8 percent bump. That’s based across close to 800 studies.
“Looking across all commodity crops, on average over close to 3,000 studies, the yield advantage using neonics is close to 12.6 percent for those growing potatoes. They’d lose 10 percent of their yield if neonics were banned. These are hard, fiscal impacts.”
On the unintended consequences of a ban…
“Another thing — and these jump out to me — are the unintended consequences. We held eight day-long meetings with growers across the country. One was in Memphis. What we came away with after listening to the growers was enlightening. There are many forms of neonic values that growers brought to our attention.
“We asked them what would happen if neonics were taken away. One of their big concerns is safety. If they have to go back to the older pyrethroids and organophosphates, this is a major issue. They’d have to get into the moon suits in order to make applications of the older, hotter chemistries. Safety came up again and again and again at these meetings. And those chemistries are really all that’s left if neonics are out of the picture.
“Another major factor growers mentioned repeatedly was simply convenience. With neonics, they don’t have to make extra trips across the field, they don’t have to scout as much, they don’t have to have as much equipment.
“If you go back to the older chemistries and apply them to the surface of the plant, it will wreak havoc on the pollinators. And that’s what environmental groups are trying to protect. By banning neonics, it’ll hurt pollinators more.
“Finally, the growers told us their IPM (Integrated Pest Management) programs will take a hit. When they have to go back to the foliar insecticides, it’ll kill off the beneficials.
Neonicotinoids are already banned in Europe. How is that going?
“Of course, that wasn’t part of our study, but I read the news like everyone. My understanding is that in England, growers of rape and canola took a 30 to 40 percent yield loss due to the flea beetle coming in without a proper control method.
“That’s what growers here tell us would happen relative to white flies as well as the flea beetle. Both of those pests wouldn’t be controlled with pyrethroids or organophosphates. You’d see some serious yield drops in crops from fruit to lettuce to vegetables as well as field crops.
“There are several studies looking at the impact of the European ban. But there hasn’t been any data released saying ‘it’s working, the bees are healthier’ or ‘it isn’t working and here’s the cost to the growers.’”
What alternatives would those pushing for a ban use?
“Honestly, I understand where they’re coming from because I understand the importance of honeybees. My former role was as chair of Environmental Studies in the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. I was an environmentalist and still consider myself one. I understand the role of honeybees and other pollinators and have tremendous concern about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and other things.
“However, I’m afraid the causality science hasn’t been established saying neonics are the cause of either CCD or the large number of honeybee or pollinator die-offs. What I do know, and what has been firmly claimed by growers, is the pollinators will take a huge hit if neonics are banned.
“A ban wouldn’t mean that growers wouldn’t use other chemistries to protect their livelihoods. They’d turn to things that would come into direct contact with pollinators. It’ll kill them as well as the pests the farmers must control.
“It’s my hope that the people pushing for a neonic ban will begin to realize that they have value relative to the pollinators when looking at the alternatives.”
How close is the EPA to a ban?
“I don’t think we’re close. A White House report will be coming out soon. That will likely be followed up with a series of listening sessions. That’s what happened with the EPA preliminary report on soybeans that I mentioned earlier.
“When the EPA released that report, they got a few pats on the back from environmental groups. But they didn’t anticipate the significant amount of evidence that would be submitted showing that preliminary report wasn’t accurate. There are significant benefits.
“My understanding is the EPA now wants to look at neonics in corn. If they do that, we’re still many months away from that report and more feedback. If they’re thinking about a ban, we’re likely at least a year out from them even floating the idea.”
On the need for growers to become involved…
“One of the reasons for the growingmatters.org website — which I have nothing to do with — is to help focus the various ag groups on the need for involvement. That has to happen if they want to keep neonics; they must parallel what the environmental groups are doing. They simply must speak out to the EPA about the value of these tools. Without neonics, whole production systems will begin to crumble.
“Growers must voice their opinion on the value of neonics. I can’t do it. I’ll always be perceived as a hired gun for the manufacturers even though they had no say over our reports. But farmers and production groups can’t be painted with the same brush. Ultimately, it depends on the growers.”