Ag committee hears concerns about governor's pollinator executive order

Ag committee hears concerns about governor's pollinator executive order

Farmers put on defensive with order; MDA says efforts to review neonicotinoids have been ongoing since 2013 legislative directive.

An executive order issued by Gov. Mark Dayton at the onset of the Minnesota State Fair regarding pollinator protection continues to create buzz in the countryside and in St. Paul.

Based on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Review of Neonicotinoid Use, Registration, and Insect Pollinator Impacts in Minnesota, which found “sufficient scientific evidence that neonicotinoid pesticides present toxicity concerns for honeybees, native bees, as well as other pollinating insects,” Dayton charged MDA with taking “immediate action to implement” new department recommendations pertaining to use of neonicotinoid pesticides by state citizens.

MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS: The Minnesota House Agriculture Policy Committee hosted an informational hearing last week, drawing testimony centered on farmers’ beliefs that they were blindsided by Gov. Mark Dayton's executive order and MDA’s neonic review.

MDA’s review, issued to the public in late August in conjunction with the governor’s executive order, was the culmination of work directed by the 2013 state Legislature for the MDA to review neonicotinoid use in the state.

The 120-page review includes discussion on the insecticide’s chemistry and mode of action; the U.S. EPA and MDA registration review process; labeling; use and sales; movement in the environment; the risks of use; treated-seed planting dust exposure; bee activity, feeding and impact of insecticides; the benefits of neonics on crops; and proposed actions steps regarding the use of neonics.

A few of those proposed actions by MDA call for “verification of need” prior to using neonics, increasing inspections and enforcement of pesticide label requirements that are toxic to pollinators, increased education about Minnesota-specific neonic use to minimize exposure to pollinators, and the development of best management practices (BMPs) to protect and enhance pollinator health in the state.

Seven state agencies are involved with fulfilling the order’s directives, which also affect 8 million acres of state-owned and -managed land. Across the state, there are more than 25 million farmland acres.

Informational hearing held

The Minnesota House Agriculture Policy Committee hosted an informational hearing last week, drawing testimony centered on farmers’ beliefs that they were blindsided by the governor’s executive order and MDA’s neonic review.

Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, chairman of the House Agriculture Policy Committee, said Dayton’s order is vague and came out of the blue.

“A top concern is, farmers and other people in the ag industry were not consulted before this executive order was issued,” he said.

Dave Frederickson, MDA commissioner, acknowledged farmers’ concerns and pointed out at the hearing that pollinators are in trouble, and the state needs to help reverse that trend. He also explained how the review work originated in 2013 due to the legislative request to develop BMPs for pollinators.

“These [executive order] directives were based on discussions with stakeholders at the pollinator summit held in February and the special registration review process, including public comments solicited as part of the scoping document.” Those public comments included 444 responses, five of which came from agricultural representatives: Minnesota Farm Bureau, Minnesota Agri-Growth, CropLife, Bayer and Syngenta.

No action was taken at the committee informational hearing. Anderson, himself a farmer, said he appreciated the conversation but remains leery of the order’s potential impacts.

“The Department of Agriculture testified it is not looking to ban neonics, rather to reduce the use, and also indicated farmers are not abusing neonics,” Anderson said. “What is the point of this order if farmers already are adhering to the labels and doing the right things as stewards of the environment?

“We all want to protect our pollinators. I have discussed this issue with beekeepers and have learned this is a complex problem, with numerous factors contributing to the colony collapse disorder. We need to work together and use sound, practical solutions with this issue. This executive order only serves to further alienate an ag sector that already was still smarting from the governor’s push on buffer strips.”

Anderson also noted the use of agricultural chemicals currently is regulated by a federal label, and that it remains unclear how far Dayton’s executive order can extend. He added that legislative action ultimately may be required if the use of neonics as a seed treatment is to be reduced, and indicated the discussion likely is to continue when the Legislature reconvenes in January for the 2017 session.

More questions

Joe Smentek, director of public affairs at the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and an environmental attorney, attended the informational hearing and said some folks left with more questions than answers. He noted that Frederickson stated that he had no knowledge of farmers using these products improperly or not according to their labels.

“He stated that if farmers were following the labels, little would change for them. If this is true, then why is immediate action needed?” Smentek said.

At one point in his testimony, Frederickson explained that "verification of need" prior to the use of neonicotinoid pesticides could be met by reading and following the label.

“If that is the interpretation that was contemplated by the executive order, it seems crazy to order it when it’s already happening,” Smentek said.

Regarding research and development of BMPs to protect and enhance pollinator health in Minnesota, Smentek said work is already being done by the University of Minnesota.

“MSGA, along with other ag groups, approached the bee researchers at the U of M, asking what farmers could do to help with pollinator habitat. We were looking to see if small plots or large tracts were necessary to help bees and other pollinators,” he said. “The end result was support from ag groups on a grant proposal that would fund this type of research at the U of M. We are also working with other groups to try to get more habitat on the landscape.”

New committee on pollinator protection

Also stated in the executive order, a new committee on pollinator protection will advise the governor, the Environmental Quality Board, the Interagency Pollinator Protection team and participating agencies on pollinator policy and programs.

The committee will consist of up to 15 members appointed by the governor, with relevant experience in agriculture, conservation, education, academia or local government.

The committee will do the following:

• Promote statewide collaboration on pollinator protection efforts.

• Raise public awareness of pollinator issues.

• Review and comment on agency pollinator programs, reports and recommendations.

• Identify and support opportunities for local and public-private partnerships.

Applications are due Sept. 27. To apply for the committee, visit the Secretary of State’s website, sos.state.mn.us/media/2658/september-2016-vacancies.pdf.

To read the governor’s executive order, visit mn.gov/governor/assets/2016_08_25_EO_16-07_tcm1055-253931.pdf.

An executive summary and a full copy of the MDA’s Neonicotinoid Special Registration Review can be found on the MDA website at mda.state.mn.us/neonicsreview.

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