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Minnesota Takes the Lead on Pesticide Restrictions

bee pollen 2On Day 2 of the Minnesota State Fair, our shameless lovefest to food and agriculture, Governor Mark Dayton dropped the hammer on bee-crippling neonicotinoids. According to Lex Horan of Pesticide Action Network, “Minnesota set the strongest rules in the nation to protect pollinators from pesticides.” Awesome, yes. But is it enough to make a difference?

While numerous reports linking pesticides and bee decline have brought international attention to the issue, and led the EU to ban three neonicotinoid (“neonic”) pesticides in 2013, recent studies offer the strongest evidence yet of the particular virulence of these pesticides. Both the mainstream sources of some research (including the US EPA and the Minnesota DNR – not liberal hippie bastions), and the breadth and depth of new evidence make these studies exceptional.

The most comprehensive study tracked 62 different species of wild bees in the UK for over 16 years, from 1994 to 2011, allowing researchers to compare 8 years of data before and after the introduction of neonic-based pesticides to the region in 2002. They found that bees that foraged on neonic-treated oilseed rape (let’s just call it canola, shall we?)  were three times more likely to experience population declines than bees foraging on non-neonic plants. The average decline across all 62 bee species was 7%, which is pretty bad, but 5 species declined by 20% or more, which is worse. And a University of Minnesota study released last week showed that exposure to neonic-treated crops makes the entire beehive lazier: the queen produces less eggs, the hive brings in less food, workers are less diligent and effective at fending off invaders and threats. So, while neonics may not be killing bees directly (let’s call it “sublethal”), the evidence demonstrates that the damage to colonies is significant. As the UK study’s co-author, Ben Woodcock, put it:

Prior to this, people had an idea that something might be happening, but no-one had an idea of the scale. […] It’s long-term, it’s large scale, and it’s many more species than we knew about before. 

The direct impetus to Dayton’s declaration was a list of 8 recommendations issued by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture after conducting a study of neonicotinoids at the request of the State Legislature. Dayton’s executive order prohibits the purchase of neonic plants and pesticide products for the capitol complex and all state funded projects, and requires better neonic labeling and consumer education. Most controversially thus far, it requires that farmers prove a legitimate need for neonicotinoid-specific pesticides before they can use them on crops. We don’t yet know what kind of proof farmers would be required to submit or how “need” will be judged, but in principle the precautionary approach seems far preferable to the unrestricted application currently in effect.

This is all good. Really. BUT (sorry) the most far reaching and significant proposal will also be the hardest to implement. Authorizing the State DOA to regulate and restrict neonicotinoid-treated seeds requires legislative approval. See, the vast majority of neonics used in agriculture are slipped onto the seeds before planting, not sprayed on crops in the old-fashioned way. (This is why bees can ingest the insecticide at any time: because the poison is always present in the plant.) About 80% of the corn and more than 1/3 of the soybeans planted in this country grow from neonicotinoid-coated seeds, which  can pretty much be used where and whenever, even though these are the very plants that are decimating the bee population.

Pesticides are federally regulated, but these seeds are not, because the EPA does not consider coating seeds in pesticides a “pesticide application” so they don’t qualify under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. Even if Minnesota manages to fight off the agribusiness lobby, bypass the EPA non-classification, and pass this ambitious regulatory bill, the possibility of punitive lawsuits alleging anti-competitive legislation is certainly possible.

And there’s an issue even bigger than federal agencies and agribusiness lawsuits: the place of pesticides in the overall Industrial Agriculture system. Any decrease in these pesticides will probably be supplanted by another, differently toxic, solution. The lock-in of path dependency means that the elimination of one chemical compound will not change farming methods or necessarily improve the environment at all. Conventional farmers will still be farming with conventional methods, which means the kind of intensive, large-scale monocropping that weakens the soil and surrounding ecosystem so much that synthetic pesticides are more or less necessary.

All in all, an admirable and well-intentioned move on Dayton’s part, but it may amount to little more than shifting deck chairs on the Titanic.

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