Sunday, April 12, 2015

Neonics and the Farmer as Peacemaker

Neonicotinoid (neonic) pesticides are a commonly-used class of pesticides that have stirred up their share of controversy in the last few years. These pesticides have come under fire for their alleged negative impact on bee populations. The issue is typically framed as a war between the environmental groups, who are concerned about bee population health, and the agrochemical companies, who are concerned about their revenue stream. Research institutions play the role of the black market arms dealer supplying ammunition to both sides.

A recent article in the Guardian takes aim at the political aspects of the issue, focusing on the debate in the UK and the EU. Thankfully, the article considers the view of an often-ignored party in the debate: farmers. The article seems to give a slight edge in the war to the chemical companies, if only because the scientific evidence seems to be currently shaking out in their favor, but the most interesting participants in this war are farmers.

Why are farmers the most interesting participants? Unlike environmental groups and agrochemical companies, they have a fairly obvious self interest in both the health of bee populations and the ability to use effective pesticides. Thus, when an academic like Dave Goulson says, "Most scientists agree it’s habitat loss that is the single biggest driver, with disease and pesticides contributing. Obviously, any pesticide is damaging to wildlife; it’s about finding the right balance between productivity and environmental impact," we can look to farmers as the most likely of the three participants to determine that balance.

So what do farmers have to say about the use of neonics? The Guardian article provides us with one farmer's opinion.
For John Haynes, manager of a 3,000-acre arable farm on the Essex/Herts border, the effects of the neonicotinoids ban are already plain to see. “This is the first season we didn’t use the pesticide and the flea beetle larvae are all over the oil seed rape,” he says. “It’s cost me an additional £25,000 to apply six different insecticides rather than use Cruiser [the neonicotinoids pesticide specially made for oil seed rape and manufactured by Syngenta], but the beetle and aphids are already resistant to theses pyrethroids. It’s old chemistry that kills all other beneficiaries in the soil, rather than the systemic neonicitinoids that target just the beetles, so it’s less environmentally friendly too.” 
Haynes supports the recent appeal for an emergency exemption from the ban made by the NFU and supported by Syngenta. “The derogation isn’t driven by chemical companies,” he says. “The M11 corridor has been badly hit by flea beetle and we need neonicotinoids to avoid this happening again next year. The greens and beekeepers probably have an argument, but if you want oil seed rape to be grown in this country rather than imported, we need a more intelligent approach to neonicotinoids than a total ban.”
Farmers have a financial incentive to ensure that bee and other populations are healthy while also controlling pests that hamper productivity. To the degree that policymakers should have any say at all in this matter, they should seek farmers' advice when making regulatory decisions. If not, environmental groups might push for too much regulation such that productivity would be needlessly hampered; agrochemical companies might push too far the other direction. Unfortunately these latter groups are given the broadest audience, creating a situation where farmers must incur lobbying costs just to maintain access to a critical input. In the war over neonics, farmers are uniquely positioned to negotiate an armistice.

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