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NYS Assembly Considers Limiting Pesticide Linked To Bee Deaths

New York Assemblyman Steve Engelbright speaks before a hearing on his bill to limit neonicotinoid pesticides in New York on September 20, 2021.
Karen DeWitt
New York Assemblyman Steve Engelbright speaks before a hearing on his bill to limit neonicotinoid pesticides in New York on September 20, 2021.

The New York State Assembly held a hearing Monday on whether the state should strictly limit the use of a type of pesticide that has been linked to the die-off of honeybees, and population decline in other insects and birds.

The compounds, known as Neonicotinoids or “neonics,” have been in existence since the 1990s. They have been more widely used during the past fifteen years in the form of a pretreatment for corn, soy and wheat seeds.

Assembly Environmental Committee Chair Steve Engelbright says the neonics are a “systemic poison” and have created a second “silent spring,” a reference to the seminal book by Rachel Carson nearly 60 years ago that led to the banning of the pesticide DDT.

“The neonicotinoids are even more toxic and are at least as dangerous,” Engelbright said. “And we haven’t really addressed this.”

Dan Raichel, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says scientific studies that link the increased use of the chemical to the mass honey bee dies offs in recent decades.

“Neonics are exceptionally insect toxic,” said Raichel who said one crop of the treated seeds contain enough active ingredients to “kill a quarter million bees or more.”

He says the chemical is not just deadly to insects, but leaches into the surrounding soil and water and can harm birds, mammals and even humans. Raichel and other environmentalists who testified cite data that links the presence of the chemical to an association with autism in children. Studies estimate half of all Americans have some level of neonic pesticides in their bodies.

The bill would limit the use of the chemical. It could no longer be used as a preemptive or prophylactic treatment, but could be used in response to a specific infestation on a farm. Engelbright says the European Union and Canada have already imposed similar restrictions.

Researchers from Cornell University detailed the results of a study that finds the use of the chemical does not necessarily help farmers fight off pests more effectively or achieve better crop yields. Dr. Scott McArt, a professor of entomology at Cornell, says farmers have increasingly used it as an inexpensive method of “insurance” against possible pest outbreaks.

McArt says insects can also develop immunity to the chemical, making it ineffective to quell infestations. He says there are alternatives, including more frequent crop rotation and the use of biological pest controls.

Industry representatives who testified at the hearing argue that neonics are safe and effective. Caydee Savinelli is with the Switzerland-based Syngenta, one of the largest sellers of agricultural pesticides in the world. She says the chemicals are an important aid to farmers responding to climate change, which has caused sudden insect infestations that threaten crops.

“With climate change, we don’t really understand the long-term effects,” Savinelli said. “We certainly know with bumble bees, they’re not as adaptive as some other bees, so that’s a concern.”

Members of the state’s Farm Bureau also testified, saying the chemical is an important part of an integrated pest management system that works to protect pollinators. They asked the Assembly members to listen to science before deciding to limit their use.

Savinelli, who says her grandfather grew oranges in Florida, says limiting the use of neonics would lead to higher food prices.

“When you look at it across the board, it does increase the cost,” she said.

Savinelli says instead of worrying about the potential harmful effects of the pesticides, more people should plant flower gardens to help support pollinators, and turn off their outside lights at night to protect moths and other nighttime insects.

That led Assemblymember Harvey Epstein to admonish Savinelli and the other industry representatives, for what he says is a failure to consider the potential long-term harm from the chemical.

“I would hope that we aren’t just focusing on the cost of orange juice,” Epstein said. “But what will our societal costs be?”

The measure to limit the use of neonic pesticides has already been approved in the State Senate.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.