New York State's legislators are about to place drastic restrictions on neonicotinoids ("neonics"), a popular, safe, and effective class of pesticides. They're putting the bogus claims of activists ahead of the welfare of consumers and farmers. Let's hope Governor Hochul will be more sensible and veto the bill.
The state of New York is on the brink of a big mistake by banning a pesticide that is critical for many farmers. Legislators, tired of being hassled by misguided environmental activists, are negotiating the final wording of the inaptly named “Birds and Bees Protection Act,” which would prevent growers from accessing neonicotinoids, aka "neonics," a commonly used class of insecticides considered one of the world’s environmentally safest. That is partly because of its innovative mode of application -- through seed coatings rather than spraying.
In order to make the legislation less objectionable, it was amended to allow the sale of neonics on a product-by-product basis if the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation provides a written justification for emergency use every year. (As of this writing, the wording has not been finalized.)
This might seem like a good political compromise: Urban liberal politicians can say they did something for their constituents, and conservatives, many of whose constituents are farmers in rural areas, can say they did their best and prevented an outright ban.
However, this “solution” will end badly for growers and the food system. How can I predict that? The experiment has already been run: For the past five years, an identical scenario has been playing out among European growers, politicians, and anti-pesticide activist groups. Spoiler alert: This saga was catastrophic for growers, birds, bees, consumers, and the environment – and the same would be true in New York.
In 2018, just like New York’s kowtowing politicians are now trying to do, the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, banned neonicotinoids except for emergency-authorized uses (a.k.a. “derogations”) greenlighted by EU member countries. Similar to New York, it resulted from anti-pesticide activists spreading bogus bee-pocalypse fears among the public and Green Party members working in concert to usher in anti-pesticide legislation.
These derogations were a lifeline for many growers, as there were no other good pesticide options to stop some pests. Sugar beet growers were among those devastated by the neonic ban. By 2020, farmers across 10 EU countries clamored for – and received – 21 derogations to protect their sugar beet crops from aphids spreading “beet yellows virus,” a disease that decimated up to 80 percent of crop yields.
Yellowing and browning of leaves due to beet yellows virus infection. Credit: Jack Kelly Clark, UC IPM
But Europe’s anti-pesticide activists were unsatisfied, just as New York’s activists will be. Almost immediately after the first derogations were instituted — and without any regard for the consequences — they began filing lawsuits to annul them. Earlier this year, the European Union Court of Justice, the EU’s equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, ruled in favor of the activists. Neonic derogations immediately became illegal in Europe.
Predictably, Europe’s sugar industry is now in serious trouble. Beet weevils are now the pest du jour that only neonics can stop. Thus far, early in the growing season, they’ve destroyed 40,000 acres and caused a loss of 60,000 tons of sugar in Austria alone. Other sugar beet growers earlier saw the writing on the wall and decided to grow other crops instead. French sugar giant Tereos hammered another nail in European sugar’s coffin by recently announcing it will close its sugar refinery operations in France, resulting in more than 120 job losses. A warning to New York’s agriculture industry: your crops and livelihoods will also be threatened when the derogations end.
Ironically, bees don’t pollinate sugar beet plants. They are pollinated by wind, like many of New York’s major crops, including corn, wheat, and potatoes. Other major New York vegetable crops, like tomatoes and peppers, are self-pollinated. Thus, even if neonics were toxic to bees (which they're not), the bees wouldn't be exposed to them on the many crops that they don't pollinate.
Growers in Europe who did have alternatives simply sprayed more pesticides – usually older and less environmentally friendly chemicals. Before the neonic ban, growers sprayed their crops on average 2.4 times per hectare each season. After the ban, they sprayed pesticides 3.6 times on average, mostly with chemicals in the more indiscriminate bug-killing classes: pyrethroids and carbamates. That’s 1.145 million more pesticide applications per season sprayed on bees, birds, and the rest of the environment.
The same thing will happen in New York. Instead of coating seeds with a tiny amount of pesticide and burying them in the ground where birds and bees can’t touch them, farmers will be forced to spray more pesticides indiscriminately aboveground.
Because these are complicated scientific issues, we need regulatory agencies like New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to make pesticide decisions, not politicians or the activists pressuring them. The DEC has the scientific expertise to make regulatory determinations, and so far, they – along with the U.S. EPA and many other regulatory agencies throughout the world – have determined that neonics are safe for farmers to use.
Neonics are not a major cause of bee death. Experts agree that varroa mites, and the many diseases they spread in the hive, are the primary threat to bees. Since neonics were first used in the mid-1990s, honeybee populations have grown by 51,000 colonies in the U.S.; and there are nearly 21 million more beehives in the world now than in 2000.
New York politicians should let the state’s qualified environmental regulators make the decisions. If the legislature passes the bill banning neonics, Governor Hochul should stand up for her state's farmers and consumers and veto it.
Note: An abbreviated, earlier version of this article was published in the New York Post.