ALBANY, NY (WSKG) – The New York State Assembly held a hearing on whether the state should strictly limit the use of a chemical in pesticides linked to the die-off of honeybees, and population declines of other insects and birds.
The compounds, known as Neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” have been in existence since the 1990s and have been widely used during the past 15 years in a pre-treatment for corn, soy and wheat seeds.
Assembly Environmental Committee Chair Steve Engelbright said 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 and we haven’t really addressed this,” Engelbright said.
Dan Raichel with the National Resources Defense Council said scientific studies link the increased use of the chemical to the mass honey bee dies-offs in recent decades.
“Neonics are exceptionally insect toxic,” said Raichel, adding that one crop of the treated seeds contain enough active ingredients to kill a quarter-million bees or more.
He said the chemical is not just deadly to insects, but also leaches into the surrounding soil and water which 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, and not allow it to be used as a preemptive or prophylactic treatment, but would allow it for use in response to a specific infestation on a farm. Engelbright said the European Union and Canada have already imposed similar restrictions.
Researchers from Cornell University detailed the results of a study that found the use of the chemical does not necessarily help farmers fight off pests more effectively or achieve better crop yields. Dr. Scott McArt, professor of entomology at Cornell, said farmers have increasingly used it as an inexpensive method of insurance against possible pest outbreaks.
McArt said insects can also develop immunity to the chemical, making it ineffective to quell infestations. He said 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 from Syngenta, a Swiss-based company and of the largest sellers of agricultural pesticides in the world, said 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 helps protect pollinators. They asked the Assemblymembers to listen to science before deciding to limit their use.
Savinelli, who said 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 said 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 said is a failure to consider the potential long-term harm from the chemical.
“I would hope that we are not 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.