The birds, the bees, and treated seeds

Last updated on Jun 22, 23

Posted on Jun 22, 23

2 min read

Another fight is full-on between agricultural technology and the public, this time involving pesticide-treated seeds.

Earlier this month, New York became the first US state to put forward legislation to ban seeds coated with neonicotinoid (popularly called “neonics”) ingredients.

They’ve been in environmental activists’ crosshairs for ages, on both sides of the border, for their negative effect primarily on bees.

Back in 2016, Health Canada said it would ban neonics. Later, it reversed that decision, saying if used as directed, they weren’t a threat. Then California tried banning neonic-coated seeds. The governor wouldn’t sign the bill, but the state went on to enact tough legislation limiting their use. Now, New York says out with neonic-treated seeds.

The ag sector has been working to reduce pesticide spraying, which was part of the initial uproar, with naysayers claiming unintended spray drift from neonics harmed pollinators and other life in its path.

Coating crop seeds during manufacturing, before they’re sold to farmers, was one way to address the matter.

Some people like this approach. First, it greatly reduces farmers’ and farm workers’ contact with liquid pesticides. As well, using seeds treated with pesticides means no spraying, and no drift. Precision spray technology has advanced appreciably and made huge strides, but it simply isn’t as exacting as coated seeds.

In fact, one pro-technology group in the US, Western Plant Health, says without pesticide-treated seeds, five times or more pesticides would be needed than with the treated seeds.

The organization also says pesticide treated seeds are less apt to impact farmers’ fields and waterways. Fewer pesticides, applied early, either eliminate or seriously reduce water contamination through runoff, it says.

When news of New York’s opposition started surfacing late in the winter, agricultural groups began a campaign to counter the anti-coated seed movement. They warned that legislation to ban neonic-treated seed would put producers there at a disadvantage. The American Council on Science and Health said politicians were “putting the bogus claims of activists ahead of the welfare of consumers and farmers.”

But their words didn’t have much effect: early in June, the vote against this technology was overwhelming, and the “Birds and Bees Protection Act” was born. Looking back, perhaps the spray drift issue was never really the problem; it’s farmers’ use of almost any modern crop protection technology that draws opposition.

If the New York governor signs the bill this summer, selling corn, soybeans or wheat seeds coated with neonic ingredients will be banned immediately. Farmers will already have planted seed for this year’s crop, but who knows where they’ll turn next year.

This seems like a battle that with honesty and the right messaging could have been won in the public forum by farmers. People rail against anything they see being sprayed, and coated-seed technology directly addresses those concerns. Farmers could have teamed up with companies that sell coated seed to extol other environmental benefits. Third-party science and health groups with no particular axe to grind could have been enlisted to speak louder against claims built on hyperbole.

And let’s be clear, this is not solely a New York issue. Just like the animal welfare legislation being enacted in California that affects so many other states – and eventually countries – this kind of law can ripple throughout the sector. Agriculture everywhere needs to be ready.

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