Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Neonic-less Future?

Happy New Year to everyone.  My hope is to stay mildly enlightening as we forge ahead to planting 2014's crop.  I always feel full of optimism every year in January because you have to be, or at the very least, should be optimistic in this business.  Agriculture is a fantastic way of life and we are truly blessed to be part of it.
Last week I attended the Southwest Ag Conference in Ridgetown.  It is a tremendous conference that everyone should consider attending at least once.  The list of topics discussed at the conference are extensive and I am amazed every year by the diversity and quality of the speakers.  In addition to the usual selection of Ontario specialist and farmer speaker types, there were speakers from the US, Brazil and France. All coming to little Ridgetown.  FarmSmart is coming up at Guelph this coming Saturday and it too has an impressive list of presenters.  A good new year resolution would be to make time to fit one of these programs into your schedule.

The last session I attended was a presentation by Tracey Baute, OMAF's insect lead and Art Shaafsma, University of Guelph, Ridgetown campus.  They presented the results of the survey their team of technicians conducted in 2013 regarding neonicotinoid (Cruiser, Poncho, Gaucho) corn seed  treatments and the impact of this treatment on honey bees and the environment.    
They monitored 9 locations in Ontario with farm co-operators planting corn using vacuum style planters adjacent to honey bee yards.  They had data on the dust created by the planters, the residual levels of neonics in the fields after planting, the type of pollen bees collect during the growing season and the levels of neonics found in the pollen and the dead bees found at the hive.  All very interesting stuff, some of which merely leads to more questions that need follow up.  The story will definitely continue. 

First, the good news from the study. 
1.There are still lots of honey bees available to crop producers who rely on honey bees for pollination purposes.
2.There was no correlation between the levels of neonics found in dead bees vs the total number of dead bees.  Bees die through the season due to a number of factors.
3.Honey bees collect 90% of the pollen from flowering trees, hawthorns, crab apples, etc. during corn planting time.  It was believed that honey bees foraged more in plants like dandelions that are much closer to the ground.
4.Using Bayer's new fluency powder as a seed lubricant instead of talcum powder reduced the total amount of neonic residue coming out in the planter exhaust by 21%.

Now the bad news from the study.
1.The number of confirmed honey bee hive collapses due to neonic pesticide poisoning has increased from 2012 to 2013. In 2014 this trend will have to reverse itself.
2.Neonics were found in every hive sampled by the study and neonic residues were found in all pollen samples collected at the hives.
3.Wind will blow planter dust up into tree lines and circulate it over considerable distances.
4.Neonics are highly water soluble which is part of the reason they work so well as a seed treatment.  However, neonic residue could be found in the surface dust on the field later in the season.  This is because soil moisture making its way to the top of the soil brings along some neonics with it, in very trace amounts.  Neonics could also be found, sometimes at very high levels in ponding surface water left on the fields after a heavy rain.  That was most disturbing to me.

The MOST important point of the presentation came at the end.

It is estimated that 70% of the corn planted in Ontario is done with vacuum style corn planters.  For this coming year Canada's Pest Management Review Agency has decreed that lubricants used for seed flow purposes, such as talcum powder will not be permitted.  The only seed flow lubricant allowed for use in vacuum style planters is Bayer's new fluency powder.  It is important to understand the difference between a seed flow lubricant and a mechanical lubricant.  Graphite which is an example of a mechanical lubricant can still be used in finger pick up type planters.

After listening to the entire presentation I have come to the conclusion that neonicotinoid use as a seed treatment will be at best, greatly restricted and at worst banned completely in the near future.  The agronomist in me does not like that conclusion.  Neonicotinoids work well on soil insects that love eating seed. The use of neonic products totally eliminated one factor that contributes to reduced plant stands. 
The environmentalist in me does not agree with the agronomist.  It appears to me, and I must stress this is only my opinion, that the negative consequences of wide spread neonic use are piling up. I have trouble believing that these consequences are not spreading to more than just honey bees.  I truly hope that this assessment is wrong.

No matter, agriculture will carry on and continue to thrive.  New solutions will be found because that is what smart people do.  There are a lot of smart people in agriculture.  I saw a bunch of them at Ridgetown.

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