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New York law pushes tricky patchwork approach for modern pesticides

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The Birds and Bees Protection Act would prohibit the use of neonicotinoid insecticides, but decisions based on questionable data leave family farmers in a bind

 

This week the New York legislature began advancing the Birds and Bees Protection Act. If it passes both chambers and is signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the law will prohibit the use of neonicotinoid insecticides in the state. It also expands the Department of Environmental Conservation’s power to regulate any pesticides that allegedly harm bees, pollinators, or birds.

Pollinator health captured public interest over the last decade. Plenty of news segments focused on the problem. Large brands utilized the issue in their marketing. And, unsurprisingly, activists seized on the opportunity to support a narrative that a bee-pocalypse was looming and would doom the entire Earth. The solution? Naturally, humankind would have to give up on modern agriculture.

In particular, the bee proponents moved against neonic insecticides. Neonics are an important crop-protection tool for farmers that are often used as seed treatments. We know large amounts of these pesticides will hurt bees, but so do most insecticides. After all, bees are bugs. But there’s not a lot of data that bees ever encounter large volumes of neonics in the real world. And recent studies trying to establish a substantive link between bee health and neonic use aren’t very convincing.

Those facts didn’t seem to slow down New York legislators though. And now farmers in the state will have to scramble to find replacements that will get the job done. All without evidence that there’s even a problem.

I’m generally opposed to these measures on a state or — even worse — local level. We saw a similar thing happen with countywide bans of GMO cultivation in Oregon and California. Small groups of voters, likely without any understanding of the issue, were able to dictate crop-production methods. Unfortunately, family farms are stuck with the consequences. It’s clear that local governments are more susceptible to radical ideas, especially when there are congregations of true believers.

But there’s an even better reason to stop these laws: We have a very good regulatory framework on the federal level. For decades the Environmental Protection Agency has regulated and monitored pesticide use according to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. It’s a science-based approach that relies on research and has continuous monitoring.

Pesticides authorized for commercial use under FIFRA undergo rigorous testing. The EPA dictates how these tools can be used, when they can be used, and by who they can be used. It considers how each pesticide affects the environment, our waterways, insects and other animals, and humans. And restricted-use pesticides can only be applied by a licensed applicator. The regulations may sometimes seem onerous, but it’s an approach that’s served us well since 1947.

So we don’t actually need state and local regulations for pesticide use. Certainly if there’s a localized concern, such as a sensitive ecosystem, then more localized laws may be appropriate. But statewide bans of certain pesticides are unnecessary. It only serves to create a patchwork of laws and regulations across the country.

And please don’t misconstrue this as a dismissal of concerns over pollinator and bird health. Fruit and vegetable growers rely on bees to grow crops and make a living. We all rely on them to survive. So, yes, we care. While the renewed public interest is good, the doom-and-gloom outlook is largely overblown.

I wish all of this was something the New York legislature considered before passing the legislation. Because it may have come to a different conclusion. And it could have done things that may actually support the birds and the bees.

 

Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.

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