Bill to Ban Controversial Class of Neurotoxins Again Hits Resistance
Money collected in annual pesticide registration fees goes into R.I. general fund, not to fund training or staff
March 9, 2020
PROVIDENCE — The prospect for passage is unlikely for a bill that bans a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. These neurotoxins are linked to the decline of honey bees and other pollinators. The chemicals also persist in the environment, threatening birds, people, and aquatic life.
The bill (H7425) was introduced in 2016, but pushback from local scientists and farmers led to the creation of a pollinator working group and a study commission. The committees learned that the state has only four employees that oversee pesticide use and training for the thousands of pesticides approved in the state, while all of the money — $1.5 million from annual registration fees and $71,000 in licensing and certification fees — are redirected to the Rhode Island general fund.
Meg Kerr, head of advocacy for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, noted the need for data showing how neonics interact with other common chemicals such as fertilizers.
“So we have very limited capacity for managing a ton of pesticides,” Kerr said during a Feb. 27 House hearing.
The working group tried several initiatives to improve local pollinator habitat, such as convincing the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to plant pollinator-friendly plants roadside.
“So we worked for several years on all of these issues, and none of the recommendations we put forth have gone anywhere,” Kerr said.
Another member of the working group, the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association (RINLA), said testimony from entomologists, beekeepers, and other experts failed to conclude that neonicotinoids, also called neonics, are the primary cause of pollinator decline.
Neonics are highly beneficial, reliable, and cost effective, according to written testimony submitted by RINLA executive director Shannon Brawley. “They pose little threat to pollinators when used according to the label.”
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is considering requiring a license for neonic use. However, Kerr said DEM lacks the staff to oversee that the rules are followed. Municipalities are prohibited from enacting bans and restrictions of their own.
Neonics are also common in flea collars and pet products, prompting the Providence-based group Defenders of Animals to support the ban.
Charles Clarkson of the Rhode Island Bird Atlas 2.0 referred to reports showing that neonics harm mammals, fish, and birds. The most popular neonicotnoids have a half-life of nearly three years, he said, and consumption of a small number of seeds treated with neonics can kill birds.
“It’s cumulative, so it keeps building up,” the University of Rhode Island-based ornithologist said. “So it’s starting to really mirror what we are seeing in the days of DDT, which is the stuff sticks around for quite a while and the impacts can be felt by the wildlife populations for quite some time.”
The Rhode Island Farm Bureau and several farmers spoke in opposition to the ban, arguing that neonics save lives by keeping food prices low. Farm Bureau president Henry B. Wright III said house cats kill many more birds than pesticides and that adding a licensing requirement would be onerous to farmers.
Other opponents of the ban said neonics are safer than past pesticides. They noted that this class of pesticides offers targeted treatment and banning them isn’t the solution to a complex problem such as colony collapse.
The pesticide trade group Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE) said the bill lacks exemptions to exterminate bed bugs, termites, and the emerald ash borer. Neonics target the central nervous system of nuisance insects making them the safest option for people, pets, and the environment, according to RISE.
Pesticide industry group CropLife America agreed that neonics are a safe option for farmers and recommended that Rhode Island follow guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency. The federal agency is working with the pesticide industry on setting best management practices for neonics use, but a ban isn’t considered likely.
The European Union has banned three types of neonics. Walmart, Home Depot, and True Value are phasing out sales of neonics and are labeling plants that are treated with them.
Bill Stamp of Stamp Farms in Cranston said neonics are farm “protectants” needed for the ever-evolving war between humans and insects.
“This is a war that has to continue to go on and (we must) partner with the companies that do this work for research,” Stamp said.
He claimed that losing a chemical class such as neonics would put Rhode Island at a competitive disadvantage to farms in other states where they aren’t banned.
The bill was opposed by DeCastro Farms in Portsmouth, Quonset View Farm in Portsmouth, Young Family Farm in Little Compton, Big Blue Bug Solutions, and Griggs & Browne Pest Control.
Tyler Young of Young Family Farm said he uses neonic-coated seeds for potatoes, squash, and fruit trees because they are safe during application and they only harm unwanted bugs.
“It’s like a tool in the toolshed, just like a tractor,” Young said. “To eliminate something just because we have great theories about it would be disastrous.”
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