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Meet Minnesota’s new neonic rules — pretty much the same as the old rules

Farmers won’t be asked to do anything much different from what they already must do under federal rules, a state regulator explains.

The new controls address only agricultural use, and only the application of neonic products to growing plants. The first limitation is probably not trivial and the second is obviously huge.

Mark Dayton’s executive order limiting use of neonicotinoid insecticides looks to be a first among the states; certainly anti-pesticide activists are greeting it that way.

But will its new controls on agriculture really make much difference to the health of bees and other pollinators across Minnesota?

After digging into the details with Gregg Regimbal, who oversees neonics regulation at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, I have my doubts that they will, or even that they’re actually “new.”

Requiring verification that neonics are needed to prevent major crop loss, in Regimbal’s highly persuasive view, merely restates and clarifies label restrictions that have been in place nationwide for the last three years or so — and demands little of farmers that they don’t do already.

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I have yet to see that viewpoint mentioned in coverage of last Friday’s announcement, although some reports noted other limitations of Minnesota’s “new” approach.  For example, most noted that the controls address only agricultural use, and only the application of neonic products to growing plants. The first limitation is probably not trivial and the second is obviously huge.

In sheer volume, Regimbal assured me, agricultural use “dwarfs the others,” which include residential applications and use in parks and on golf courses. But because the nonagricultural uses are in areas where citizens and communities are devoting increasing effort to establishing healthier forage zones for bees, Monarch butterflies and other pollinators, this is still problematic.

More important by far: Dayton’s order does not apply to most neonic-treated seeds, which Minnesota mostly lacks authority to regulate or even monitor because federal pesticide rules do not cover them.

As Regimbal explained, once an insect-killing product has been painted on a seed, it is no longer a pesticide in the eyes of the Environmental Protection Agency, even if it can dry up and blow away as dust during handling and planting.  (His parallel: The rot-preventing chemical applied to treat lumber is a regulated substance; the resulting boards are not.)

The exception is the small portion of seed that arrives untreated and gets its coating applied within Minnesota’s borders.  That’s right: For Minnesota users and regulators, two identical seeds differ in status if one was treated here and the other somewhere else.

Without legislation, little change

Dayton will ask the Legislature to establish authority over treated seeds, and please join me in wishing him luck with that. I don’t think you need be an anti-insecticide zealot to consider that it makes little sense to control and/or track insecticide exposure via some routes while ignoring others.

Especially when those others could in some ways loom larger on the landscape. Neonic-treated seed now accounts for more than 98 percent of all acreage planted in corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and sorghum across North America. That statistic can be found in the Minnesota ag department’s pages on neonic regulation.

For the neonic products that Minnesota does track, 381,000 pounds were sold in the state from 2010 through 2013, according to ag dept statistics; year by year, that amounted to 13, 26, 15 and 22 percent of “all crop pest control products.”

And for their regulated use on growing plants — “outdoor foliar application for food crops and commercial ornamentals,” as Regimbal put it — he says the restrictions Dayton announced Friday are a clarifying restatement of existing label language that at places may be sufficiently “ambiguous that it could be hard for somebody to know if they’re complying or not.”

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The directions for use that are specific for pollinator protection, in corn and soybeans, say you can’t apply this product while bees are foraging and while the plants are still flowering — which for soybeans is pretty much the whole growing season — unless one of five conditions is met. One of those being that they meet the threshold for economic loss and can document that.  

That’s the one we think most people will want to try to meet — the others are about applying after sunset, or when the temperature’s below 55; then there’s one about a government-initiated public health response, which you know isn’t going to happen. The last one’s about notifying beekeepers through a registry program which doesn’t exist.

Documentation needs don’t differ

“So we focused on the one we feel people will be looking at,” Regimbal explained, and just as the EPA restrictions and exemptions are already on the label, it’s likely that the  procedures for claiming and documenting the economic-risk exception won’t feel brand-new.

Take soybean aphids. They’re pretty well understood, and where the threshold of loss is, and if you go to the University of Minnesota there’s a scouting sheet they use in the field. You check at so many spots in the field, see how many aphids you have on each plant, how many plants percentage-wise are infested — that’s what you use to make your decision.

If you’re over the threshold, you go to your ag dealer and say, I need to spray aphids tomorrow. The spraying gets done, there’s an application record, you have your threshold documentation, and you keep these as you would for any other documents, to look at for history next year and other years. And if we were to do a use inspection at some point, they’d pull up the documentation and that’s what they’d need.

Wait, wait … so what they’d need under the new approach is pretty much what they already gather?

You know, I really think so. I think this is happening in most cases. Farmers aren’t going to buy products unless they see an economic advantage.

And they don’t have to prove the need in advance? Just document it afterward if an inspector inquires? Yes and yes, Regimbal said.

Well, now I was deeply confused by both the fanfare around Dayton’s announcement and also the pushback from the soybean and corn growers’ associations, the Farm Bureau and others about his supposedly heavy-handed interference in farming and farmers’ affairs. With some fumbling I framed a question I will recast here for coherence:

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You seem to be saying that a) the new economic-loss restriction is just a restatement of what’s already mandated by the product label, and b) the required documentation will be essentially the same material people already have in hand, and c) they don’t have to hold off on applying the stuff until some bureaucrat signs off on the plan — just d) document their decision-making afterward, if somebody happens to ask. Or am I missing something?

“No,” he chuckled, “I think you’ve summed that up very well.”

So where’s the controversy?

Then why all the hot talk and pushback?

I  think that what happens sometimes is these things get rolled out and there’s a big press conference and the media gets hold of it and they write it one way and growers get hold of it and read parts of it and latch onto certain phrases … and once that gets rolling down the mountain it gets momentum. But we really think it’s the right thing to do.

OK, but do you think it can really bring about a big reduction in neonicotinoid use?

I guess we don’t know that yet. But to make a big difference you have to rely on information and education, not just regulation. We do see opportunities to reduce by finding better ways to evaluate when the products are needed and when they aren’t, and get that into the hands of people who are making the decisions.

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I asked Jeffrey Donald, who speaks to the media for the neonic manufacturer Bayer CropScience, if he agreed there was little difference between existing rules and those Dayton outlined Friday.

“It’s too early to tell,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out what it means and how it will be applied.” He said the company does not object to pollinator-protection efforts based in sound science and developed in a transparent public process, and he restated Bayer’s much-contested position that its products, if used according to label, have been shown to pose no risk to honeybees.

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I should also say, in fairness to Gov. Dayton and his order, that it directs a range of other actions by state agencies to reduce their own neonic use and promote pollinator health. But the regulatory aspect has been the focus of most coverage and all the controversy since Friday, so therefore of my attention today.