Lawmakers were very happy to play up a spat between the USDA and EPA during a May 13 House hearing on pollinator health.
Last October, the EPA released an analysis on neonicotinoid seed treatments for soybeans that found such treatments provide "little or no benefit" to soybean producers.
In late April, Robert Johansson, USDA acting chief economist, wrote a terse letter to the EPA objecting to the agency’s actions. “America's farmers face numerous challenges as they work to produce the food, feed, and fiber for a strong and healthy America. On October 22, 2014, EPA added an additional and unnecessary burden by publishing a portion of an incomplete risk assessment titled "Benefits of Neonicotinoid Seed Treatments to Soybean Production" which again puts growers in the position of defending their pest management decisions.”
Further, Johansson said, the EPA ignored USDA’s specific request that the full assessment be done before the agency released information as “the full risk assessment that would more robustly describe the benefits of neonicotinoid seed treatment for all crops. Instead, EPA released the report regarding soybean seed treatments without additional consideration of other crops or to USDA cautions about releasing a premature assessment of the costs and benefits of such seed treatments.”
The EPA release has resulted, Johansson continued, “in a plethora of articles which cast doubt on the value of seed treatment and neoniconitoids for agricultural production and the choices made by farmers. EPA's report indicates that most neonicotinoid seed treatments were prophylactic in nature and that there are available alternative foliar insecticide treatments that would be as effective at similar cost to neonicotinoid seed treatments. EPA concludes that there ‘... are no clear or consistent economic benefits of neonicotinoid seed treatments in soybeans.’
“As a whole, USDA disagrees with that assessment. We believe that pest management strategies are made in consideration of pest pressures, climate, landscape, and numerous other factors.”
Johansson – testifying on May 13 before the House Agriculture subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research along with Jim Jones, assistant administrator at the EPA's office of Safety and Pollution Prevention – was predictably less pointed in his criticism of the EPA. Lawmakers, however, were unwilling to pull on the kid gloves.
“Despite the overwhelming consensus within the scientific community regarding the relative importance of the various factors contributing to overall pollinator health, the factor near the bottom of the scientific community’s list seems to be the factor highest on the list of activist groups,” said Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, chairman of the subcommittee.
Neonics, said Davis, “seem to be attracting the lion share of media and public interest attention.”
Davis also chided both agencies for a lack of communication even after President Obama established a White House task force last year to review pollinator health. The task force is tardy with its report. “The main focus of the work was to be on expanding habitat for pollinators. I should note that the task force findings were supposed to be released at the end of 2014, but unfortunately, five months later we are still waiting for this report.”
Turning to Johansson’s letter to the EPA, Davis said, “Examples like this are why we fought so hard in the farm bill to give agriculture a seat at the table when EPA is considering rules and regulations that would impact farmers. I expect EPA’s Science Advisory Board to follow congressional Intent and give farmers that voice so better policy can be made.”
Washington Rep. Suzan DelBene, ranking member, lamented that the hearing had no other witnesses. “I hope that we will get the opportunity to hear from bee keepers, fruit and vegetable growers, applied entomologists and other experts. In light of all of the recent press focusing on the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments, I have to wonder why today’s hearing did not include these interested parties but instead is centered on what seems to be an insular issue between two federal agencies…
“By focusing on the perception of a disagreement between agencies during an open and transparent public comment process, we reduce our oversight role to refereeing.”
Another issue – this one involving a common herbicide - was broached by Michigan Rep. John Moolenaar. “Recently, the International Agency for the Review of Cancer – part of the World Health Organization – announced the classification of glyphosate as a ‘2-A category probable carcinogen.’ It seems that conclusion contradicts other parts of the WHO, which have reviewed glyphosate and found no evidence of it being a carcinogen. … Are they in communication with (the EPA) on this?”
Jones said the IARC operates independently “of the U.S. government and, I think, any other government in the world. We’re making sure we look at everything they looked at before we finalize a draft assessment, which we’ll do in the July time frame. We’ve collaborated with our colleagues in Canada in the development of our assessment. I can say that the body of information in front of us is much larger than the body of information that was in front of IARC.”
Neonics a whipping boy?
The lack of urgency between the USDA and EPA regarding pollinator health was highlighted by Georgia Rep. Austin Scott. “It shouldn’t take a congressional committee or a presidential directive for the USDA and EPA to work on an issue of this magnitude. There was a lot of talk as we were getting started about honey. But the fact is pollination is the real issue for our food supply…
“Honeybees and pesticides aren’t mutually exclusive issues. I have concerns when we talk about neonics that they’re becoming the whipping boy here when the pesticides aren’t the primary problem. The varroa mite is one of the biggest problems.”
Scott queried Jones on what the EPA doing “to make sure we have the tools to combat (varroa mites) that have been so devastating to our bee colonies?”
Jones: “Our role is to make sure that when we get an application for a varroa mite control product that we expedite our review of it. There’s a very good example of that within the last nine months. The USDA determined that (oxalic acid), which had been used to control other things, had the potential to control varroa mites without harming the bees. So, we worked with them on developing an application that they then submitted to us. Within several months we’d approved it so oxalic acid is on the market today.”
Florida Rep. Ted Yoho cited various reasons for the need to tap the brakes on a neonic ban. “What I’d like to bring out in this hearing is clarification in the purity and purpose of science – not have agendas driven by one side or the other. … If we don’t have that in your agency we have mob rule or media hysteria that drives things…
“Do we have assessed values of neonics in the nectar of a flower that is toxic to bees? What level is that Mr. Jones?”
Jones said the EPA is yet to finish the risk assessment process for neonics and their risks to bees. “A part of doing that is understanding exposure. And a part of evaluating that exposure is to get good estimates of neonic in honey, in pollen.”
Yoho brought up the use of neonics in combatting a serious disease issue in Florida’s citrus orchards. “I’m sure you’re aware of what’s going on in Florida with our citrus trees. About 90 to 95 percent of citrus trees in Florida are infected with the HLB (Huanglongbing or Citrus Greening) virus and without neonics we’ll have no citrus. … The neonics, it has been proven, if given three weeks prior to the blooming of the plant, are very effective to stop citrus greening. Yet, the levels of neonics in the nectar measured is less than 20 parts per million, which is deemed toxic to the bees.”