EPA Actions Support Modern Ag and Sustainability

Thursday, January 19, 2017
By: David Fischer, Ph.D., Director, Pollinator Safety
cherry tree

Modern agriculture technologies like insecticide are essential tools to help farmers produce abundant, healthy crops. Without them, their jobs become far more difficult and costly, ultimately affecting all of us around the dinner table.

Because of how important these tools are and how widely they are used, it is equally important we make sure they don’t pose unreasonable risks to humans, the environment or beneficial species like pollinators. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with ensuring this second part and so, in addition to extensive testing of every product before it comes to market, they also regularly review existing products based on new science and information. That was the basis of several announcements the EPA made recently on a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, as well as a new policy aimed at protecting honey bees.

Let’s take a look at what EPA found and what it means.

Protecting Pollinators

Pollinators such as honey bees are some of the most beneficial insects we have. They pollinate many of the crops we depend on for food and may contribute to one in every three bites of food on our plates. As a leading agriculture company, these little workers are essential to the success of our farmer customers, so we have spent nearly 30 years working to ensure their health.

The EPA has been looking for ways to help protect insect pollinators from some uses of pesticides, particularly when they’re sprayed on crops as their flowers are blooming and pollinators are likely to be visiting. Many products already contain specific directions about not using them when bees might be pollinating, but this was the first time the EPA issued a formal policy related to how they’re used when managed honey bee colonies are present.

This is a complex issue because there are many crops that bloom but either don’t require farmers to hire bee colonies to pollinate them or aren’t attractive to pollinators at all. There may also be other times when a farmer is at risk of losing his crop and has no other alternative but to spray. In these cases, other actions may need to be taken to help protect pollinators.

In the EPA’s recent policy on spraying pesticides on blooming crops, they have balanced pollinator protection with giving growers the flexibility to protect their crops. For example, the EPA specifies when products can be used on certain crops at times (like at night) when bees are not likely to be out foraging. There’s a lot that growers and beekeepers can do to communicate and work together toward their shared goals, and it seems like the EPA policy is designed at encouraging that kind of cooperation. I recommend you read it for yourself here.

Risks from Neonics

Neonicotinoids, or neonics, garner a lot of media and environmentalist attention. They have been used by farmers for about two decades now and are extremely popular among growers both because of their effectiveness at protecting a wide variety of crops and their safety to humans and the environment compared to many older technologies. They can be used as sprays, applied to the soil or coated on a seed before it is planted.

For several years, EPA has been reviewing all the latest science on these products to ensure that they are, in fact, safe to use. In 2016, EPA released an assessment on risks to pollinators from one neonic called imidacloprid. In it they found that nearly every use of it did not pose long-term risk to colony health and additional mitigation efforts can be used for the others. You can find that assessment here

Recently, they released a similar assessment for two other neonics – clothianidin and thiamethoxam. Similar to the assessment for imidacloprid, the EPA found very few instances where there might be risk to honey bee colonies. It is important to know that for the few areas where they identified potential risk, there are existing or proposed measures growers can take to reduce that risk. One example is potential risk from “dust off,” when some pesticide can come off the seed as it goes through the planter. New products such as Bayer’s Fluency Agent are excellent lubricants designed to limit that dust off.

Safety for Aquatic Species

The EPA, of course, looks at more than just pollinators. As they’re conducting these reviews of neonics, the EPA is also looking at updated science on human health and effects on other species such as aquatic species. For example, if some of the pesticide ends up in a waterway, it is important to know if any species in that water will be harmed.

The EPA’s preliminary aquatic assessment for imidacloprid seeks to answer this question. In its assessments, the agency takes a tiered approach where the first tier looks at multiple worst-case scenarios to see if there could even be potential risks. If there are, the agency looks at those areas specifically in more detail.

In its preliminary assessment on imidacloprid, EPA identified some areas that it wants to look into more closely. A more refined assessment sponsored by Bayer was recently published as a research article in the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. This assessment concluded “registered crop and non-crop uses of imidacloprid in the United States pose minimal risk to aquatic invertebrate communities.” This refined assessment has also been submitted to EPA to be considered as the Agency refines its assessment.

What It All Means

We all have shared goals of producing safe, healthy crops in the most sustainable way we can.  Doing so requires commitments from all stakeholders to work together, but it also depends on a regulatory system based on sound science. Taken together, EPA’s recent policy and assessments show that the modern agriculture tools farmers depend on can be important tools for agriculture sustainability.


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