Farmers are no different from any buyer – they want to know what they’re buying, how much it costs and its expected performance. But in the brave new world of agricultural seeds, where multiple traits and technology are stacked like Microsoft’s operating system, it’s becoming more and more difficult for farmers to separate out what is really needed and discover how much each piece is costing them. In the case of neonicotinoid (neonic) seed coatings used as a pesticide, both the effectiveness and costs are somewhat of a mystery, according to a new paper published by IATP today.
As farm income is expected to drop more than 30 percent from last year, farmers are carefully examining all input costs to see where they can save. With their financial cost and actual effectiveness unclear, neonic seed coatings may be one of those places to cut costs. But the real cost of neonics likely goes well beyond the input price. A growing body of science directly implicates neonicotinoid (neonic) pesticides as a contributor to the significant decline of bees and other pollinators. Neonics are applied in multiple ways in agriculture and horticulture but are most prevalent as a seed coating material for commodity crops like corn and soybeans. Based on convincing and mounting evidence, beekeepers, scientists and other individuals concerned about pollinators are working together to spur regulatory action and shifts in the marketplace to reduce the use of neonics.
In May 2015, the White House issued an interagency National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and other Pollinators. The strategy focuses on efforts to restore honey bee loss, increase monarch butterfly populations and restore pollinator habitats. But the White House plan virtually ignores the on-the-ground farm economics that directly contribute to rising neonic use in seed coatings – specifically the role of a few large companies that have a stranglehold on the seed market. This concentrated market power in the seed industry has allowed a few multi-billion dollar companies like Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto to significantly limit U.S. farmers’ choices around seed coating.
In most cases the seed is coated with neonics whether wanted or not and our paper found that this lack of choice has made it difficult for farmers and their advisors to assess the actual value of these pesticides in crop production, or to understand their true financial and environmental costs. Most farmers understand the value of pollinators to plant growth and the food system and would not intentionally harm them. However, without credible information on the risks or the freedom to choose their seed coating, farmers are left with little choice but to accept what their seed company delivers.
The good news is that there are independent seed companies and dealers able today to provide farmers with information and choice around seed coatings. Representing a small segment of a highly consolidated industry, independent seed producers and dealers are able and willing to respond to market changes and farmer preferences associated with not only neonics, but also other areas of market interest, such as non-genetically modified organisms (GMOs), certified organic, cover and specialty crops. But a farmer’s ability to choose what kind of seed coatings they want as part of their crop management system should be the rule, not the exception, in the seed market.
One of the most basic and necessary aspects of a free market is available and accurate information about products and their efficacy, cost and benefits. It should go without saying, then, that in a competitive marketplace, farmers should receive accurate, up-to-date information from researchers and other farmers at field days about the costs and benefits of neonics and other seed coatings related to both crop production and the environment, including pollinators. Yet, this isn’t happening with neonics or other seed coating ingredients today. We need credible, farmer-led field trials that compare different seed coatings and traits, and that information should be shared with other farmers. And those findings should be compared with the effectiveness and costs of other pest control approaches, such as integrated pest management (IPM), that have proven benefits and economic returns. Only with complete information and choice – about neonics and other crop management tools – can farmers make smart choices that allow them to produce crops and take care of pollinators and the environment.