The past several months have seen a lot of coverage of the alleged links between neonicotinoid insecticides (neonics) and widespread, puzzling, and distressing bee deaths. This week saw the European Commission ban the use of neonics for two years, starting in January of 2014. Many groups are calling for similar action on this side of the pond, while others, both here and in Europe, are more hesitant to declare that we’ve found the smoking gun. The stakes are very high on both sides, of course: everyone has heard about the importance of bees for pollinating food crops, and farmers and farm groups like to point out that seed treatments are essential for crop production and that the alternatives to neonics may prove to be more harmful in the long run.
Forbes published a comprehensive article on the debate and its background on Tuesday which is definitely worth reading. Speaking from a more local perspective, beekeepers in Ontario noticed a spike in bee deaths last spring that coincided with corn planting season, and particularly the use of air seeders (which exhaust dust that can contain neonics and dry lubricants like talc). In response, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture is undertaking research to examine this issue, and they’ve already issued some recommendations aimed at mitigating the risk to bees from air seeders.
The Organic Perspective
While the Forbes article does a good job pointing out the unanswered questions, conflicting evidence, and complex circumstances surrounding bee deaths, it and most other articles on the subject fail to explore the reasons behind seed treatments and the alternatives. This is where an organic farmer can add perspective.
I was visiting an organic farmer in Eastern Ontario last week and the topic came up during our discussion. He admitted that before he transitioned to organic production 5 years ago, he would have considered it practically impossible to grow a respectable crop of corn without insecticide-treated seed and synthetic chemical fertilizer. Now his eyes go wide as he reports the seed and input costs that his neighbours invest in their corn crop, the impromptu “crop tours” the same neighbours take of his organic fields, and their reluctant acceptance that he is, in fact, matching their yields, with significantly lower input costs and higher sale prices.
Make no mistake, it is possible to grow corn (and any other crop) without chemically-treated seed – that’s where a lot of commentators get it wrong. However, many activist groups get it wrong, as well, by expecting the world to change overnight. There are good reasons organic farmers can succeed without treated seed, and good reasons most conventional farmers rely on it.
The Conventional Reality
A lot of it has to do with timing. Seeds treated with chemical fungicides and insecticides can be planted early in cold, damp soils and still be there 3 or 4 weeks later when the conditions are right for germination. Untreated seed under the same conditions will rot, plain and simple. Organic farmers must wait until soil temperatures are warm enough to allow for quick germination and fast emergence (which is how all farmers did it in the days before treated seeds, leading to lots of interesting advice on the timing of planting: waiting till the oak leaves were the size of squirrel’s ears is one idiom; another is waiting until the soil is warm enough to provide a comfortable seat for a naked, er, bum – obviously country roads were quieter in days gone by and the skies were free of mapping satellites!)
However, considering the vast acreages of a limited number of crops that many farmers need to seed in a short time-frame, racing against unpredictable weather, the ability to put seed in the ground and wait for conditions to be right for germination is a big bonus. Along the same lines, organic farmers practice extensive crop rotations that reduce pest pressure, thereby reducing the need for seeds treated to kill these pests. Commodity-driven agriculture limits the crop rotation options for most conventional farmers, once again creating the need for treated seed.
Biology may still provide us with an answer in the form of a product that aims to protect and enhance seed and plant development, rather than trying to kill what we don’t want. One such product is already on the market – I’ve used it myself, with encouraging (albeit unscientific) results:
Here is a pair of photos I took last spring, after seeding the same pea variety from the same supplier, side by side, untreated side on the left, and on the right, treated with Natural II. Taking photos a month later, the naturally-treated seeds had resulted in better germination and faster growth.
Just as experienced beekeepers are telling us that the causes of bee deaths are complex (and likely inter-related), our agricultural system is a complex web of interactions. Banning one particular insecticide may or may not be a step forward in both cases, but if we want to create a sustainable future for both the farmers and the bees (which is probably a fantastic idea if we want to keep eating), we’d better understand and address the needs of both!