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Researchers find that farmers under-report use of pesticide seed coatings


Research out of Penn State says that the number of crop-protection products used as seed coatings is under-reported — the reason, a new study claims, is because farmers may not realize what pesticides are on the seeds they’re planting.

“We reviewed existing evidence, as well as proprietary and novel government data, on seed treatment usage and found that many farmers either did not know what pesticides were on their seeds or falsely assumed that seed treatments did not include certain pesticides,” said Paul Esker, assistant professor of epidemiology and crop pathology, Penn State.

The international team of researchers involved in the analysis argued that this gap in data may complicate efforts to evaluate the value of different pest management strategies, while also protecting human health and the environment. Specifically, the researchers said, “The lack of public data limits research into farm productivity and economics, pest resistance, and environmental effects. It also makes the evaluation of pesticide-related policies and mitigation efforts more difficult.”

The team analyzed proprietary data from Kynetec, a third-party global marketing and research firm that maintains one of the most comprehensive datasets on pesticide use in the United States, collected from 2004 to 2014. They found that the use of seed treatments in the U.S. grew during that past decade, particularly in corn and soybean production, though Kynetec noted that farmers had difficulty recalling the exact pesticides used in a given year when asked long afterward (hence the reason Kynetec stopped collecting data in 2014).

Based on the data Kynetec had, in the 2012 to 2014 period, 90 percent of corn acres and 76 percent of soybean acres were grown with treated seeds. 

Next, the researchers analyzed farmers’ responses to questions about pesticide-coated seeds documented in the Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) — the USDA’s primary source of information on the production practices, resource use and economic well-being of America’s farms and ranches. Specifically, they examined farmer responses to the ARMS for cotton in 2015, corn in 2016, wheat in 2017, and soybeans in 2018.

They found that around 98 percent of farmers were able to provide the names of the field-applied pesticides used on their cotton, corn, wheat, or soybean crops. By contrast, only 84 percent of cotton growers, 65 percent of corn growers, 62 percent of soybean growers, 57 percent of winter wheat growers, and 43 percent of spring wheat growers could provide the name of the seed-treatment product on their crops. The rest either did not answer the survey question or specified that they did not know.

The researchers also found that, in 2015, cotton growers reported that 13 percent of total acreage was not treated with an insecticide and 19 percent was not treated with a fungicide, while simultaneously reporting the use of products containing those types of pesticides on that acreage.

The results appear in the journal BioScience.

“One of the most important findings of this study is that farmers know less about pesticides applied to their seeds than pesticides applied in other ways,” said Margaret Douglas, assistant professor of environmental studies, Dickinson College. “This is likely because seed is often sold with a ‘default’ treatment that contains a mix of different pesticide active ingredients, and the treated seed is exempt from some labeling requirements. Without knowing what is on their seeds, it is nearly impossible for farmers to tailor pesticide use to production and environmental goals.”

According to the study’s lead author Claudia Hitaj, research and technology associate, Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology, the lack of information on the use of pesticidal seed treatments means that a significant portion of pesticide use, particularly for active ingredients that are applied almost exclusively as seed treatments, is not captured in existing pesticide-use datasets.

The team concluded that farmers, researchers, and regulators could benefit from improved labeling of pesticide-treated seeds and posting of information about the active ingredients contained in treated seed products on public websites. In addition, information could be collected through sales data from seed retailers and other companies. And information about the planting location of treated seeds could help in assessing pest resistance and the local effects of pesticides on the environment.

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