Why It’s Time to Curb Widespread Use of Neonicotinoid Pesticide
By John F. Tooker
Planting season for corn and soybeans across the U.S. corn belt is drawing to a close. As they plant, farmers are participating in what is likely to be one of the largest deployments of insecticides in U.S. history.
Almost every field corn seed planted this year in the U.S.—approximately 90 million acres' worth—will be coated with neonicotinoid insecticides, the most widely used class of insecticides in the world. The same is true for seeds in about half of U.S. soybeans—roughly 45 million acres and nearly all cotton—about 14 million acres. In total, by my estimate, these insecticides will be used across at least 150 million acres of cropland, an area about the size the Texas.
Neonicotinoids are very good at killing insects. In many cases they require only parts per billion, equivalent to a few drops of insecticide in a swimming pool of water.
In recent years, concerns have been raised about the influence of neonicotinoids on bee populations. As an applied insect ecologist and extension specialist who works with farmers on pest control, I believe the focus on bees has obscured larger concerns. In my view, U.S. farmers are using these pesticides far more heavily than necessary, with potential negative impacts on ecosystems that are poorly understood.
Pesticides on Seeds
Most neonicotinoids in the U.S. are used to coat field crop seeds. Their role is to protect against a relatively small suite of secondary insect pests—that is, not the main pests that tend to cause yield loss. National companies or seed suppliers apply these coatings, so that when farmers buy seed, they just have to plant it.
The percentage of corn and soybean acreage planted with neonicotinoid seed coatings has increased dramatically since 2004. By 2011, more than 90 percent of field corn and 40 percent of soybeans planted were treated with a neonicotinoid. Between 2011 and 2014, the area treated crept toward 100 percent for corn and 50 percent for soybeans. And the mass of neonicotinoids deployed in each crop doubled, indicating that seed suppliers applied about twice as much insecticide per seed. Unfortunately, many farmers are unaware of what is coated on their seeds, while others like the peace of mind that comes from an apparently better protected seed.
Unlike most insecticides, neonicotinoids are water soluble. This means that when a seedling grows from a treated seed, its roots can absorb some of the insecticide that coated the seed. This can protect the seedling for a limited time from insects. But only a small fraction of the insecticide applied to seeds is actually taken up by seedlings. For example, corn seedlings only take up about 2 percent, and it only persists in the plant for two to three weeks. The critical question is where the rest goes.
Because neonicotinoids are water soluble, the leftover insecticide not taken up by plants can easily wash into nearby waterways. Neonicotinoids from seed coatings are now routinely found polluting streams and rivers around the country.
Here it is likely that they are poisoning and killing off some of the aquatic insects that are vital food sources for fishes, birds and other wildlife. In the Netherlands, neonicotinoids in surface waters have been associated with widespread declines in insectivorous bird populations—a sign that concentrations of these insecticides are having strong effects on food webs.
Neonicotinoids also can strongly influence pest and predator populations in crop fields. My lab's research has revealed that use of coated seeds can indirectly reduce crop yield by poisoning insect predators that usually kill slugs, which are important crop pests in mid-Atlantic corn and soybeans fields.
More broadly, planting coated seeds generally decreases populations of insect predators in crop fields by 15 to 20 percent. These predatory insects can eat insect pests, such as black cutworm and armyworm, that can reduce yield. Crop fields with fewer resident predators are more vulnerable to pest infestations.
Slugs, shown here on a soybean plant, are unaffected by neonicotinoids, but can transmit the insecticides to beetles that are important slug predators. Nick Sloff / Penn State University, CC BY-ND
An Exaggerated Need
Neonicotinoid advocates point to reports—often funded by industry—which argue that these products provide value to field crop agriculture and farmers. However, these sources typically assume that insecticides of some type are needed on every acre of corn and soybeans. Therefore, their value calculations rest on comparing neonicotinoid seed coatings to the cost of other available insecticides.
History shows that this assumption is clearly faulty. In the decade before neonicotinoid seed coatings entered the market, only about 35 percent of U.S. corn acres and 5 percent of soybean acres were treated with insecticides. In other words, pest populations did not cause economically significant harm very often.
Importantly, the pest complex attacking corn today is more or less the same as it was in the 1990s. This suggests that it is not necessary to treat hundreds of millions of acres of crops with neonicotinoid seed coatings.
From Overkill to Moderation
Should the U.S. follow the European Union's lead and pass a broad ban on neonicotinoids? In my view, action this drastic is not necessary. Neonicotinoids provide good value in controlling critical pest species, particularly in vegetable and fruit production. However, their use on field crops needs to be reined in.
In the Canadian province of Ontario, growers can only use neonicotinoid seed treatments on 20 percent of their acres. This seems like a good start, but does not accommodate farmers' needs very well.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a control strategy based on using pesticides only when they are economically justified, offers valuable guidelines. It was introduced in the late 1950s in response to issues stemming from overuse of insecticides, including environmental damage and pest populations that had evolved resistance. Field-crop growers have a good history of using IPM, but current use of neonicotinoids ignores pest risk and conflicts with this approach.
To implement IPM in field crops with neonicotinoids, seed companies need to acknowledge that the current approach is overkill and poses serious environmental hazards. Extension entomologists will then need to provide growers with unbiased information on strengths and limitations of neonicotinoids, and help farmers identify crop acres that will benefit from their use. Finally, the agricultural industry needs to eliminate practices that encourage unnecessary use of seed coatings, such as bundling together various seed-based pest management products, and provide more uncoated seeds in their catalogs.
These steps could end the ongoing escalation of neonicotinoid use and change the goal from "wherever possible" to "just enough."
Conservation Groups, House Reps Call for EPA to Respect Science, Take Action on Pollinator-Killing Pesticides… https://t.co/IrLcR1qlxJ— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1518734108.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.