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Thursday, June 21, 2018

By Josephine Marcotty, Star Tribune

The pesticides that are synonymous with the demise of honeybees don’t do much for the farmers that use them, according to a new analysis by a national environmental group.

The Center for Food Safety said Monday that a growing body of independent scientific evidence shows that the pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, rarely improve crop yields. They are one of the most widely used agricultural chemicals in the world and a factor in the rising concern over the fate of the honeybee.

Today almost every corn and soybean seed that is planted each year on 170 million acres across the Midwest is coated with an insect neurotoxin that is absorbed by the growing plant. They are commonly used in backyard products, and are intrinsic to most nursery plants, which now come “pre-poisoned” as a defense against insects.

“In most cases they are totally unnecessary and are causing tremendous harm,” said Peter Jenkins, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety who represents beekeepers in a legal action against the Environmental Protection Agency over how the pesticides are regulated.

Bayer CropScience, the primary manufacturer of neonicotinoids, disputed the conclusion and said that its proprietary research shows that the pesticides are a valuable tool, and increasingly important as the world’s growing population will require even more food production per acre. Nor is there evidence that the pesticides are the primary cause of bee declines or colony collapse disorder, said David Fischer, Director of Environmental Toxicology and Risk Assessment at Bayer CropScience.

“There is not any scientific evidence to support any honeybee colonies dying from exposure,” he said.

Still, the pesticides’ usefulness could be an important question as the Environmental Protection Agency conducts its ongoing safety review of the chemicals, which is expected to be completed in by 2018. The agency has asked manufacturers to provide efficacy data for neonicotinoids, and new studies on their environmental impact on honeybees and wild pollinators.

The concerns about pollinators are also on the radar for agricultural interests. Adam Czech, a public relations manger for the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said that farmers and agricultural groups in Minnesota are devising new practices to protect pollinators, and if new research creates doubt about the benefits of pesticides “then farmers are open to new ways of doing things differently.”

Neonicotinoids were approved in 1994 as the first new class of pesticides in 50 years because they promised to be far safer for humans and mammals than previous ones. Made of a synthetic nicotine, the chemical worked as neurotoxin on the insects that are the bane of farmers everywhere.

Bayer conducted studies on bees, and found that in normal conditions they were not harmful. But neonicotinoids became the focus after 2006, when commercial bee colonies suddenly crashed, a decline that has continued as beekeepers on average lose a third of their colonies each year.