The Pesticide Conversation is Broken

From previous posts you might get the impression that I think concerns about the pesticide clothianidin are small and not important. But almost every single conventional corn seed in the United States gets pesticide1 coatings, usually including a neonicotinoid and a fungicide. It’s unlikely that every field actually needs that neonicotinoid seed coating to maintain yields. Leaving aside impacts on bees, that kind of use could drive pest resistance quickly. Unlike Bt traits in most of those same corn kernels, there’s no requirement to have refuges for pesticides. So, I do actually care about pesticide use but the conversation is so broken it’s hard to be “in the middle”. Overuse of pesticides isn’t limited to clothianidin. If we restricted clothianidin, there are other pesticides available … which would also be over-used.

Those advocating for bans concentrate on single pesticides when the larger problem is that we don’t have enough research to tell us when and how to use many pesticides most effectively. Farmers depend on under-funded federal and regional government and academic institutions as well as industry — that many non-farmers don’t trust. We need more research and more education so the public trusts the process and understands it — pesticides are absolutely necessary to support our population. However the choice isn’t between “none” and “whatever industry wants”, as the conversation is currently presented.

The petition I’ve been writing about is specifically about a single pesticide, clothianidin, a member of the neonicotinoid family. The rapid adoption of this pesticide has probably led to reductions in other pesticide applications (if someone has research on this I’d love to see it — I’ve only seen one small table in a perspective-style article). But that it so quickly gained such huge market share makes it a good target. What else could explain bee die-offs? It’s so convenient.

But the evidence just doesn’t look that clear to many researchers. In writing this article, I spent some time re-reviewing the introductions to many recent papers on the subject and it’s pretty clear to me that colony collapse disorder is just not well understood yet. It’s certainly not so clear that we can say “if we just stopped using clothianidin everything would be better”. But if you read the propaganda from anti-pesticide groups, you could be forgiven for thinking that was the case. For one, there are plenty of other pesticides that act similarly to clothianidin — and there isn’t any outstanding action to ban those. Nor would an attempt to ban all neonicotinoids entirely get anywhere in the current regulatory system.

Our regulatory system in the current environment seems compromised. It has no teeth to really monitor or punish misuse of pesticides, except when the misuse is high profile (e.g. poisons or affects a lot of people). Agencies are underfunded and dependent on industry for a lot of important research. Public research itself is underfunded. Big questions on how to use pesticides effectively to maintain yields isn’t being done2. But if you’re going to restrict a useful tool, you have to demonstrate to farmers it’s either unnecessary in many circumstances or so actively harmful that there’s no question. Neither of these has really been done from what I can see, at least for clothianidin.

The conversation is broken. Information going into the conversation is missing or misused. PANNA’s report given to the EPA to support the dangers of clothianidin is a mish-mash of studies, many not even studying clothianidin (or related pesticides) and even sometimes pesticides intentionally applied to hives. How can the EPA use that to make a convincing case that clothianidin use should be restricted that will hold up in court? I haven’t read Bayer’s submission for this petition yet, but likely it’s misleading, only in other ways. But PANNA’s case will look convincing to many and makes a clear argument. The public, which in general fears pesticides and “chemicals”3, may agree and think the EPA is biased and not protecting them. Meanwhile, industry and (some) farmers thinks the EPA over-emphasizes risks to the detriment of enterprise.

What I’m not seeing is wide-spread interest in actually doing research to find out how to best use pesticides. In strawberry fields in Florida, they are now using a system that predicts when to apply fungicide. For corn seed coating it would have to be more complicated: what do you measure during the previous season and during over-wintering to decide whether or not to coat a seed (and with what)? But many of the foes of pesticides don’t really believe they can be used responsibly, so they don’t advocate for more research, they advocate for bans …. which of course industry (and farmers) are going to dig in and resist. And we sit in the middle wondering why the EPA isn’t protecting us. But in my opinion, they are doing a remarkable job in a poisoned political environment to balance public and environmental safety with effective and efficient business.

If we want to know why the EPA isn’t protecting the bees, then we should get the federal government funding more research and more educational outreach to explain the results. They are already doing some — the EPA’s response letter mentions several projects in combination with states — but no doubt they could do more. Perhaps the EPA could re-do certain experiments their response letter criticizes as being done poorly. Instead of waiting for more research to come in (or claiming that the current research is good enough to make decisions either way), why not pay for lots more research now? Of course, the government funds so little science at the best of times … but I can dream. Write your congress-person: scientific research may drive economic innovation, but we can actually use it to make good decisions too!

  1. I’m using “pesticide” through out because fundamentally this argument is about pesticides in general, not just insecticides, neonics or any specific pesticide.

  2. I may be entirely mistaken as I only have access to Google Scholar, Pubmed, and the journals Science and Nature. Following references hasn’t found me much more. For clothianidin, I’ve really only found two sets of (non-industry) research on yields and clothianidin seed coating. Some very good (to my eyes) experiments done on farms in New York suggest seed coating is overused. Some more confusing research done in Italy seems to confirm that but, so far as I can tell, isn’t actually published in a peer-reviewed journal so is unlikely to hold much sway with regulators — who seem to require either peer-reviewed sources or experiments done under their direction and protocols. I realize farmers, agricultural extensions and ag companies do experiments and share knowledge all the time, but that data doesn’t seem to be readily available to me and is likely not generally published in a way that would gain trust of skeptics of large, industrial agriculture.

  3. “Chemicals” is in quotes because chemphobia is rampant and affects many influential writers.