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Daily News Blog

31
Mar

What’s on My Seeds? Study Finds Most Don’t Know What Pesticides Coat the Seeds They Plant, including Bee-Toxic Neonicotinoids

(Beyond Pesticides, March 31, 2020) Adding to the widespread and problematic use of neonicotinoid pesticides as seed treatments, a recent study published in BioScience finds that there are significant knowledge gaps among some farmers about the seeds they are planting. The research indicates that those gaps contribute to underreporting of accurate data on the use of pesticide-coated (often with neonicotinoid pesticides) seeds — because farmers may not know what pesticides are on the seeds they plant. Pennsylvania State University reports on the study, in Phys.org, saying, “This lack of data may complicate efforts to evaluate the value of different pest management strategies, while also protecting human health and the environment.” Beyond Pesticides advocates for widespread adoption of organic, regenerative systems and practices that precludes the use of such pesticides. 

The research was conducted by a team of scientist from around the U.S., led by Claudia Hitaj, PhD, of the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology, and former economist at USDA’s Economic Research Service. In the Phys.org coverage of the study, assistant professor of epidemiology and crop pathology at Penn State, Paul Esker, PhD, notes that this lack of farmer knowledge can lead to overuse of pesticides, which would increase the already considerable risks to human and environmental health.

The authors write, “Farmers, regulators, and researchers rely on pesticide use data to assess the effects of pesticides on crop yield, farm economics, off-target organisms, and human health. The publicly available pesticide use data in the United States do not currently account for pesticides applied as seed treatments. We find that seed treatment use has increased in major field crops over the last several decades but that there is a high degree of uncertainty about the extent of acreage planted with treated seeds, the amount of regional variability, and the use of certain active ingredients. One reason for this uncertainty is that farmers are less likely to know what pesticides are on their seed than they are about what pesticides are applied conventionally to their crops. This lack of information affects the quality and availability of seed treatment data and also farmers’ ability to tailor pesticide use to production and environmental goals.”

The researchers used data, for 2004–2014, from Kynetec, an independent global marketing and research company that maintains some of the most comprehensive data on U.S. pesticide use. (At least, it did until 2015, when it stopped offering information on seed treatments.) Their data shows that use of treated seed rose during that decade, especially for corn and soybeans, so that by 2014, 76% of soybean and 90% of corn crops were grown from treated seed, and 80% of the pesticides used to treat seeds were neonicotinoids (neonics), pesticides that wreak significant damage on pollinators, human health, and the broader environment.

The research team then evaluated farmer responses to questions about pesticide-coated seeds, chronicled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS). Researchers looked specifically at responses for cotton in 2015, corn in 2016, wheat in 2017, and soybeans in 2018. Those results are concerning.

Though 98% of farmer respondents could name the pesticides they had applied in the field, the knowledge gap about the pesticides with which their seeds had been treated prior to planting stood out: 84% of cotton growers, but only 65% of corn growers, 62% of soybean growers, 57% of winter wheat growers, and 43% of spring wheat growers could say what those chemicals were. Some respondents did not answer the questions or said they did not know. Another worrisome metric: cotton farmers in 2015 “reported that 13% of total acreage was not treated with an insecticide and 19% was not treated with a fungicide, while simultaneously reporting the use of products containing those types of pesticides on that acreage.”

Margaret Douglas, assistant professor of environmental studies at Dickinson College, commented: “This [knowledge gap] is likely because seed is often sold with a ‘default’ treatment that contains a mix of different pesticide active ingredients, and the treated seed is exempt from some labeling requirements. Without knowing what is on their seeds, it is nearly impossible for farmers to tailor pesticide use to production and environmental goals.” Dr. Hitaj notes that the lack of clarity on what is being applied to seeds — especially for compounds that are used nearly exclusively to treat seeds — means that important data about pesticide use is not being captured in relevant data sets. She comments, “Reliable data on pesticide use is needed by regulators, farmers, and researchers to increase agricultural production and profitability and to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of pesticides.”

A real-world lab situation re: one of those effects presents itself in the European Union (EU). The EU banned use of three neonics in 2013; a team of researchers recently evaluated neonic residues, from 2014 through 2018, in nectar from winter-sown oilseed rape plants in France. In spite of the moratorium, residues of all three neonics were present in the nectar. The scientists conclude that persistent neonic soil residues spread broadly in the environment and substantially contaminated this major crop, thus threatening pollinators. The study did not address whether the residues were a result of seed treatment, but the question should be pursued.

Using Kynetec’s 2015 data, and those of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pesticide National Synthesis Project (up to 2014), and comparing them with the 2004–2014 Kynetec data (all on clothianidin, another neonic), the team did see a drop in pesticides known to be used as seed treatments — the result of poor data tracking of pesticide-treated seed use. The net: there is a big hole in what’s known about use levels of pesticides used to coat seeds.

The study paper provides context: USDA’s Agricultural Chemical Use Program provides to the public use estimates only for pesticides that are applied in the field — despite direction to Congress, via the 1996 Food Quality Production Act, to collect data on pesticide use. Regulations created in 1988 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created an exemption from that mandate for “pesticide-treated articles,” which includes seeds. So, despite the increase in the use of pesticides to coat seeds, federal data on such use are incomplete, and therefore, inaccurate. This is the situation in the U.S., in which the majority of corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton acres are planted with pesticide-treated seeds.

The researchers also note, “A changing regulatory landscape is likely to increase the importance of complete and accurate data on seed treatments. In January 2020, the EPA took a step in the registration review of neonicotinoids by releasing proposed interim decisions for all five neonicotinoids registered for use in the United States. The EPA is expected to complete this process in 2021. As a result of a lawsuit settlement, the EPA must now complete Endangered Species Act effect determination for neonicotinoids, many of which are applied as seed treatments. In addition, a citizen petition to the EPA filed in 2017 seeks to eliminate an exemption for seed treated with systemic pesticides and require some pesticide-treated seed to follow the registration and labeling requirements as provided by FIFRA. However, this petition has no direct impact on regulations.”

Recommendations made by the authors include: (1) better dissemination of information about the active ingredients contained in treated seed products on public websites, (2) improved labelling of pesticide-treated seeds so that all the ingredient compounds are made clear and obvious to the farmer or user, (3) collection of data about seed treatment products through seed retailers and other relevant companies, and (4) information about planting locations of treated seeds, which could help in evaluating the local environmental effects of this kind of pesticide use.

The primary takeaway from this study is that such data matter. They are a critical aspect of the science on which governmental policies and regulations should be based. The federal government should at the very least ensure accurate and comprehensive collection of data on pesticide use, through its relevant agencies. EPA should remove from its regulations the exemption of “pesticide-treated articles.” Were these agencies operating with public and environmental health as higher priorities, they would attend to the myriad ways in which ecosystems, organisms, and people are harmed by pesticide use.

Dr. Esker commented, “The lack of knowledge by farmers about the pesticides applied to seed is an example of why it is important to maintain a strong university extension system that can provide up-to-date information about different seed treatments, what these treatments do, and what the empirical data show. . . . This is also an opportunity for further collaboration among different disciplines, like agronomy, plant pathology, entomology, [and] economics and environmental science, to address farm issues from a whole-system perspective.” That whole system perspective, Beyond Pesticides believes, ought to focus on the transition to organic and regenerative agricultural practices, which would obviate the need for toxic chemical “control” in managing crops and other land parcels.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Sources: https://phys.org/news/2020-03-pesticide-seed-coatings-widespread-underreported.html and https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/advance-article/doi/10.1093/biosci/biaa019/5805569

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