After two years of sometimes fractious discussion, a task force charged with finding ways to protect the state’s bees and butterflies is proposing dozens of ideas to make Minnesota’s landscape more hospitable to pollinators.
Chief among them: programs to add more clover and other flowers to lawns and farm fields, and tightening up on the wide use of the insecticide that carries much of the blame for their declining numbers.
The task force, appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton, will present its findings to the state Environmental Quality Board, which is made up of the heads of key state agencies. The report is likely to result in proposals at the 2019 Legislature to create and fund some of the suggested programs.
The detailed, 60-page report also revealed a clear dividing line between the committee members who represented agriculture and those who represented environmental and conservation groups on the issues of insecticide use and regulation. While there was broad support for more education and improved habitat for pollinators, committee members were unable to reach consensus on ways to reduce insects’ exposure to neonicotinoids, the widely used class of insecticides that has proved to be one of the culprits in the pollinators’ decline. Instead, the report tallied the votes on each proposal and noted how each committee member voted.
“The committee was composed of people with opposing views,” said Marla Spivak, one of the committee chairs and a noted bee researcher at the University of Minnesota. “Our breakthrough was to include all of our recommendations.”
Spivak said she hopes that the newly elected governor, Tim Walz, the Legislature and state agency heads will consider the report carefully. “My goal was to vote on recommendations that would actually move forward, even in small steps, laying a solid base to improve pollinator health and diversity,” she said.
Dayton appointed the 15-member committee in 2016 in an effort to find common ground among disparate interests on how to protect bees and rapidly declining populations of wild pollinators.
It included representatives from Syngenta, one of the leading manufacturers of neonicotinoid products; farmers from the state’s largest commodity groups; the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a nonprofit; two U scientists; a beekeeper; educators; and a representative from the Pesticide Action Network, an environmental advocacy group.
Sarah Foltz Jordan, of the Xerces Society, said the group tried to identify proposals that had wide support and which could have a significant impact on reducing the decline of insects. Those included additional publicly funded programs to improve and increase insect-friendly habitat by giving landowners incentives to plant more flowers throughout year on farmland and lawns. The educational recommendations suggest making pollinators a larger piece of science curriculum in public schools, and in extension and outreach programs through the U.
But on neonicotinoids, the group split clearly into separate camps. One recommendation would give the state Department of Agriculture the authority to regulate widely used crop seeds that are treated with neonicotinoids before planting as a preventive practice against occasional infestations. That practice, for seeds that are now used on most of Minnesota’s farmland, is viewed as detrimental to pollinators, but the use and distribution of treated seeds are not regulated by the state or federal governments.
Another recommendation was to adopt a goal of reducing the use of insecticides considered harmful to pollinators and to assign a state agency to devise and implement a plan to achieve it.
A third would phase out the use of neonicotinoids in soybean seeds because they are often ineffective against the pests that attack soybeans and create generations of insects that are resistant to the toxin.
But representatives from the agricultural groups voted against them. Brian Thalmann, a farmer from McLeod County who represented the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said farmers need every option to protect their crops.
“We firmly believe that the regulatory process that is in place for pesticides is a great system,” he said. “We can’t limit options in the tool box.”
Farmers are increasingly aware of the risks to insects, he said, and do everything they can to voluntarily minimize insecticide use. But they need chemicals, he said, because if something goes wrong, “We are the ones holding the bag.”
Other committee members said those suggestions were based on clear scientific evidence that they could help pollinators while having minimal impact on farmers.
“It got real polarized,” said Steve Ellis, a beekeeper from Barrett, Minn., who’s been a leading voice nationally in the fight against insecticide use. “You are not going to make significant changes on landscape with purely voluntary programs.”