Seed Coating Pesticides Threaten Health of Pollinators and Farms

Seed Coating Pesticides Threaten Health of Pollinators and Farms

An exploration into systemic pesticides’ impact on vulnerable pollinator populations and crop yields.

Updated on 9/16/15

On 9/10/15, the U.S. appeals court overturned federal approval from EPA that would allow a new insecticide formulation called sulfoxaflor (developed by Dow AgroSciences), canceling its approval and giving environmentalists a major victory. The Judges found that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had relied on “flawed and limited” data, and the approval of the chemical was unjustified given the “precariousness of bee populations”. 

In the early 2000s, pesticide seed coating quickly became the dominant form of insecticide used in U.S. agricultural crops. By coating crop seeds with pesticides, the chemicals are then absorbed into the plant’s tissue and thus present in the plant’s nectar and pollen. These types of insecticides, known as neonicotinoids, spread easily as they can easily leach from soil to neighboring bodies of water, therefore contaminating plants and posing a threat to the nearby pollinators, insects, birds, aquatic species, and small mammals. They are especially toxic to bees, as research has shown that bees’ ability to detoxify themselves is much lower than other insects, potentially causing a colony collapse disorder. The problem is worsened by the overabundant usage of this class of pesticides, as seeds are coated with chemicals by seed distributors whether farmers need insecticide or not. The Hill writes that an estimated 95-99% of all corn seed in the U.S. is covered with neonicotinoids, thus limiting farmers’ ability to choose between coated and uncoated seeds. This overuse of chemicals can also in some cases prove detrimental to crops rather than provide the benefits that they were advertised to do, such as the slug outbreak that harmed soybean crop yields that were coated with neonicotinoids referenced in this Hill article.

A decline in pollinator populations is a looming issue threatening the U.S. agriculture system.  President Obama has recently addressed the issue of failing pollinator health. The White House has presented a number of ideas to assist in combating the decline in pollinator populations in the U.S. including the Pollinator Research Action Plan, which is largely focused on increasing the quantity and quality of habitat for pollinators by relying on community collaboration.  However, these ideas fail to address the underlying issue of seed coating and other chemical use. The European Union and the Province of Ontario have recognized the damage caused by neonicotinoids and have taken action to put a halt on seed coating for their crops, proving that integrated pest management can be implemented.

Proactive strategies to reducing harm to pollinators include sourcing organically produced seeds, practicing biological pest control by introducing beneficial insects into your landscape, and ceasing the use of systemic pesticides.

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