The controversy over the impact of neonicotinoids on bee health has spawned a second debate over how beneficial the insecticides are for farmers.
Not so much, says the Center for Food Safety, an environmental advocacy group.
The center recently released a review of 19 studies that looked at the “yield benefit” of neonics and concluded that the benefits “were largely illusory.”
But another survey printed in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a British scientific journal, concluded, “There is clear evidence of the great value of neonicotinoids in agriculture.”
The issue arises because of the push by critics to suspend or ban the use of neonics. In December, the European Commission imposed a two-year suspension on many uses of three neonics.
So what would happen if neonics weren’t available to U.S. farmers?
The Center for Food Safety’s Larissa Walker pointed out that organic farmers do just fine without using insecticides.
Farmers could also use “integrated pest management techniques,” where they do a cost/benefit analysis when a pest threat arises and then decide whether to use an alternative insecticide.
“Right now what we’re seeing is just neonics being used prophylactically, whether they’re needed or not,” Walker said.
When it comes to crops such as corn and soybeans planted by Midwest farmers, there’s “no data” to suggest that neonics are effective and would have to be replaced, said Christian Krupke, an entomologist at Purdue University.
But insecticide makers say neonics are crucial to today’s agriculture.
“Without the neonicotinoids, we wouldn’t have an orange industry in Florida,” said Caydee Savinelli, a Syngenta entomologist. That, she said, is because neonics are the No. 1 weapon for combating insects that spread the deadly citrus greening disease.
David Fischer, Bayer CropScience’s director of pollinator safety, said corn farmers using seeds treated with neonics have boosted their yields per acre by six to 12 bushels.
Consequently, if neonics were banned, U.S. farmers would need to plant 1 million additional acres of corn to produce “the same amount of corn we’re getting today,” Fischer said.
Likewise, Scott Stewart, a professor in the entomology and plant pathology department at the University of Tennessee, reported in a recent blog post that field tests have demonstrated that “there is no question that neonicotinoid seed treatments routinely increase yields in many crops in the South.”
“There’s some risks with them too, just like with any pesticide,” Stewart said. “You have to use them right and carefully.”
“It seems to me with the bee issue,” Stewart added, “the new standard is we have to find insecticides with no impact on bees. That’s really not a realistic standard.”