Minnesota is a national leader in wildlife habitat protection. Recently, that has included steps to stem the rapid decline of pollinators, such as monarch butterflies and honeybees. On Friday, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is holding a Pollinator Summit to bring together beekeepers, landscapers, farmers, and state agencies to explore ways to protect and support pollinators. Their invitation explains that the stakes couldn’t be higher because “pollinators are an irreplaceable public resource … critical for the pollination and production of crops and the health of native flora and landscapes.”
Minnesota already has focused on reversing poor habitat and poor nutrition for pollinators. We have established an independent University of Minnesota research facility to look at all sources of pollinator decline, including research on parasites and diseases.
What remain unaddressed are the man-made impacts. Systemic pesticides, including neonicotinoids (neonics), are a relatively new class of chemicals that are especially lethal to pollinators. The man-made toxin is not just in the pollen but is also retained in the plant.
Some positive steps in stemming the use of insecticides that are lethal to pollinators have been made because of consumer demand. Backyard gardeners buying plants now have the peace of mind that they’re not killing pollinators, because local and national retailers have begun phasing out plants treated with these pesticides. Several cities, a school district and Ramsey County have passed initiatives prohibiting the public purchase and use of neonics on their public land.
But when it comes to the true problem — agricultural pesticide use — the farm chemical industry has fought back at every turn.
Consider the scope of the problem. Farmers have virtually no choice but to purchase corn seeds coated with pollinator-lethal neonics, which during planting can leave residual dust behind to impair and kill pollinators. In Minnesota, 8.2 million acres of corn were planted in 2014. Recent research from the University of Minnesota shows that an average planting rate of 36,000 seeds an acre has resulted in the most efficient yields. That’s roughly 295 billion corn seeds planted in Minnesota in 2014. Most of these seeds are treated with neonics. What is the impact of such wide-scale pesticide use?
Minnesota has an opportunity for real action. At a minimum, these recommendations should emerge from the Pollinator Summit if we’re to see progress and not just small steps that will appease big agricultural-chemical companies:
• Stop using neonics on state lands. There is no reason neonic-treated seeds or plants should be planted on state lands, especially if those public lands are meant to protect, restore, and enhance water and wildlife.
• Farmers deserve a choice. When registering pesticides, the state Agriculture Department must insist that these large, multinational agricultural/chemical companies offer farmers an untreated seed option.
• Create pollinator-safe zones. To protect pollinating bees, bugs and butterflies from lethal drift, the Agriculture Department should follow the lead of other states and use its authority to place protective limits on where pollinator-lethal pesticides can be sprayed.
• Start looking to determine full effects and impacts of the new chemistry. Testing and analyzing food and water for neonics is important, because we need to better understand the risk neonics pose to people and the environment. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources also should begin testing wildlife for neonics so we know about any unintended consequences.
• Create protected habitat and corridors. Honeybees are one of many pollinators. If native pollinators are to make a comeback and thrive, then we need protected habitat and corridors that are both free of pollinator-lethal pesticides and have ample flowers from spring through fall.
Many people are asking for a ban on neonics. An alternative is requiring the responsible use of pollinator-lethal insecticides. With media campaigns, lobbying and political contributions, big chemical companies are following in the footsteps of Big Tobacco by denying that there is a problem. Minnesotans are problem-solvers. We stood up to Big Tobacco; we can stand up to Big Chemical. Our hopes are high that we will.
Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, is a member of the Minnesota House and the Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee.