Perspective: Soybean study in the journal Nature misses the point


Most people would say that life is unpredictable. We have our plans and routines, but there’s no way to tell what a day will bring. Farmers are particularly tuned in to that reality. Every growing season offers a new opportunity to work and wrestle with nature to bring forth a healthy harvest. Variables range from the weather to soil conditions to pest problems. We make our plans and use our best tools, but it’s ultimately a guessing game, albeit an educated one.

It seems like this should go without saying, yet a meta-study recently released by 23 academics seems to miss this central feature of farming life. It claimed that using soybean seeds coated with insecticides belonging to a class called neonicotinoids provide negligible benefits. As a soybean farmer of 46 years, I can tell you this is nonsense.

I personally tested out the value of neonics on my farm in 2015. Using the insecticide increased my yields that year by an average of 0.8 bushel per acre. That may not seem like a huge amount, but that translates to an additional $7.20 per acre (using an estimate of $9 per bushel). The insecticide cost about $4 per acre, so with 300 acres of soybeans, I got an extra $1,000 from my harvest.

The funny thing is that my results of 0.8 bushel per acre yield increase were actually on the low side of what the authors identified as resulting from using neonicotinoids on soybeans (they cited 2 bushels per acre).

I don’t consider an extra $1,000 to 2,000 to be “negligible,” and I would encourage the academics who authored this meta-study not to, either.

Secondly, these academics are also ignoring the value of the peace of mind that comes to a farmer knowing he has done everything he can to protect his crop. The authors complain that soybean pests don’t attack crops consistently and predictably enough to make the use of neonicotinoids worth it. But that’s kind of the entire reason that neonicotinoids work. By design, they are already in place before any pests show up to attack the crop. If no pests show up, it certainly doesn’t hurt that a farmer had them in place as a sort of insurance. If pests do show up, however, the neonic seed treatments can make all the difference between a harvest and total disaster.

I’ve lost crops before. Part of our soybean crop was totally devoured by seed corn maggots one year, and we had to completely replant. I know the damage pests can do. That’s always in the back of my mind.

To criticize farmers for using insecticides because we may not need them every single year to prevent disaster doesn’t make any sense. Do the authors of this paper carry car insurance? How about insurance on their houses?

If they didn’t have to file any claims for being in a car accident one year, would they cancel it the next year? Would they believe the benefit of their homeowner’s insurance was “negligible” because their house didn’t burn down?

Neither should they deem as “negligible” the crucial tools that the real experts — soybean farmers who know their own land and growing conditions –use to produce abundant crops every year.

soybean field
Image by Larry Lindell, Shutterstock

Furthermore, I think they should have looked at all the top soybean producing states. This meta-study left out most of the Midsouth states that have lots of problems with pests that neonics help solve.

I live in an area that’s highly responsive to neonic seed treatments, and I grow cover crops and utilize no-till farming to reduce fertilizer runoff. Neonics are just one more tool to help farmers protect and improve water quality, release lower carbon emissions, and protect non-target organisms like butterflies and bees. Using neonic-treated seed means that instead of spraying fields with stronger pesticides and fungicides multiple times throughout the growing season, smaller amounts of pesticide are applied, where it is needed, and in a precise quantity. This means that beneficial insects don’t get caught up in a farmer’s efforts to protect his crop.

By the time butterflies and bees get going, neonics are already in the ground.

Without seed treatments, the seedlings that emerge from the seeds are much more vulnerable to pests. For example, a microscopic worm called a nematode, which feeds on the roots of plants, is responsible for 3 to 4 percent loss in soybean yield in the United States every year. Treated seeds have an extra layer of protection from these attacks, which can happen before a farmer even knows he has a problem. Only seed treatments can offer this kind of targeted protection from pests from the very start.

The loss of neonicotinoids would force growers to rely on few older classes of insecticides. The estimated 4 million pounds of neonicotinoids used nationwide would be replaced with 19.1 million pounds of organophosphate or pyrethroid insecticides, equaling an increase in application rates per acre of ~375 percent. These are much less friendly to the environment and non-target organisms.

At the end of the day, the most glaring takeaway from the meta-study was that the researchers didn’t place much value on the two-bushel average return that they found resulted from using neonics. Most farmers would jump all over a return like that in soybeans. Little things matter in the real world of farmers’ economics, and these authors completely missed the economic reality that informs our decision making process.

I’m not going to tell another farmer how to conduct his business. Each farmer has to make his or her own choices based on their land and values. But I also don’t think anyone should tell farmers not to use neonicotinoids if it benefits their farms.


Wayne Fredericks is a farmer in Osage, Iowa, and a member of boards of the American Soybean Association and Iowa Soybean Association.

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