More Danger Signals for Farmers at the EPA | Commentary

Posted December 1, 2014 at 6:24pm

For years now, farmers have been trying to fend off an EPA rule that would treat everything from run-off ditches to farm sloughs as “waters of the U.S.” under the Clean Water Act, hog-tying farmers in miles of red tape and allowing the agency to micromanage almost every action we take on the farm.

Now the EPA is preparing another startling regulatory overreach that could be just as damaging. While they haven’t announced it yet, every indication suggests the agency will soon impose new rules that ban certain uses of some of the most important crop protection products we rely on.

Those products are called neonicotinoids, or neonics for short. Relatively new, and highly innovative, they’re much safer for farm workers than the older chemistries they’ve replaced. They’re more effective against target insects, less expensive to use and much more benign to the environment. Because they can be applied as a seed coating, neonics often don’t need to be sprayed at all. It’s no wonder they’ve become the most popular insecticide on the market today.

Their success, however, has also made them a target for environmental activists, who just don’t like pesticides, period. For several years they’ve been loudly claiming there’s an ongoing “beepocaplyse” — a widespread decline of bee populations — and saying neonics are to blame.

Actually, the “beepocalpyse” has been shown to be completely phony: for the past 20 years, since neonics have been widely used, bee populations have been stable in the U.S. and rising, not falling, around the world. Meanwhile, neonics have been proven to be safe for bees when used properly. But the activists, together with a credulous media, are creating a ton a political pressure on the EPA. In fact, some 60 congressmen have joined with activists such as Friends of the Earth and Center for Food Safety — groups that call themselves “environmentalist” but actually spend most of their time attacking conventional agriculture — to demand the EPA ban neonics.

Until now, the EPA has been sticking to the science: the number one cause of bee problems it says is the parasitic varroa mite. Good science doesn’t support the contention that neonics are to blame. In fact, two pre-eminent Canadian researchers, Cynthia Scott-Dupree and Chris Cutler, have just published the results of the largest-ever field study on neonics and bees. A million-dollar study, done in consultation with the EPA and performed at the highest standards, called Good Laboratory Practices, it completely exonerates neonics. It confirms what other field studies and real world evidence demonstrates — that bees actually thrive in crops, such as canola, that are seed-treated with neonics.

But now the EPA appears to be bowing to political pressure. It recently released a report based on an incomplete “literature” review that claims neonics aren’t necessary for soybean growers. Funny thing about that report: the EPA didn’t talk to the soybean growers themselves.

It also appears to have rushed its report to try to preempt a very thorough study by the firm AgInfomatics that demonstrates just the opposite: soy growers themselves say neonics are essential. They rate the value of neonics at about $12 an acre and they give a lot of reasons — neonics are safer for the farm workers, they’re easier and less costly to apply, and there’s nothing else that can prevent below ground pests from damaging their crops.

I can vouch for that. We grow 1,500 acres of soybeans on our farm, all of it treated with neonics, and we find them essential.

Europe banned neonics last year, taking the activists’ word for it that neonics were “ineffective.” Now parts of England are reporting losses of in their oilseed rape fields of 40 percent to 50 percent.

A ban in the U.S. would be even worse. Hugely important crops like corn, wheat, rice and cotton — as well as soy — rely on neonics to maintain yields. Neonics are the only thing preventing the complete destruction of U.S. citrus by the Asian HLB disease. And almost all our winter vegetables and many fruit and grape growers are dependent on neonics.

The irony is that, just as has happened in England, if the EPA bans neonics on soy or anything else, farmers will have to revert to multiple spraying of older, much more bee-harmful pesticides.

Farmers have to rise up and be heard on this, or EPA will bow to the wishes of the activists. That would be a tragedy, because both farmers and bees will suffer as a result.

John R. Block was secretary of Agriculture from 1981 to 1986 and grows some 1,500 acres of soybeans on his farm in Illinois.