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Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. made an unusual move last year when the company announced it would remove a class of insecticides linked to bee deaths from its Ortho brand of home and garden products by 2021.
The decision was timely: the company’s main customers were, one by one, announcing goals to phase out products with neonicotinoids—neonics for short—from store shelves.
Lowe’s, The Home Depot, and Wal-Mart accounted for more than 60 percent of Scotts Miracle-Gro’s sales in 2016. All three have committed to remove neonics by 2018. One year after the announcement, the company is well ahead of its goal, having already ditched three chemicals in the class and plans to remove the last one well before 2021.
“It’s a chance to differentiate us from our competitors,” Tim Martin, vice president and general manager of the Ortho, Roundup and TomCat brands, told Bloomberg BNA. “There’s plenty other control products that will help gardeners out in controlling the pests that might get into their roses and make them look less than beautiful.”
Scotts Miracle-Gro, whose Ortho brand is now the leader in garden pesticides, has forged an image as the greener garden care company. It has the largest organic gardening business in the country, accounting for almost 10 percent of its $2.2 billion U.S. sales. The company has also invested in indoor and hydroponic growing, the primary method for growing cannabis as marijuana legalization spreads in states around the country.
In making its commitment, Ortho stepped into a heated debate over declining pollinator health. Though pesticides contribute to the problem, so do parasitic mites, landscapes barren of wild flowers and grasses, and climate change. The makers of neonicotinoids, and the farmers who benefit from their bug-killing properties, have urged the public not to jump to conclusions on the chemicals’ impacts on bees.
“The science shows that when the neonics are properly used, they’re not posing a risk to pollinator colony health,” Becky Langer, head of the North American Bee Care Program for Bayer CropScience, told Bloomberg BNA. Bayer, the original maker of the older neonic imidacloprid, also manufactures products to help beekeepers control parasitic Varroa mites that endanger honeybees.
“If we eliminate all of those choices, the customers lose access to the products which are allowing them to protect their homes and yards,” Langer added.
Bayer CropScience sold its home pesticide business to French company SBM Développement last year, although the products still carry the Bayer name.
Ortho’s news of phasing out neonics ruffled the feathers of agricultural interests, an industry that has been skeptical of the claim that the chemicals are a primary cause of bee die-offs. The announcement to remove them from Ortho’s product line was unconventional enough that Chairman and CEO Jim Hagedorn felt the need to explain the company’s actions to shareholders.
“When consumers buy our products, they are physically interacting with the environment,” he said on a May 3, 2016, quarterly earnings call last year, weeks after the announcement. “They care about the environment and they expect us to care as well. We can’t simply play lip service to the issue. They need to know that we have their back.”
“I’ll just say this,” Hagedorn added. “If we had the choice to make again, we would do the same thing. My only regret is we didn’t do it sooner.”
Scotts Miracle-Gro has made good on its promise well ahead of schedule. Ortho’s pest-killers for trees, shrubs and flowers no longer contain three commonly used neonics: imidacloprid, clothianidin and dinotefuran. Acetimiprin, still used in some of Ortho’s plant sprays, will be out well before the 2021 deadline, according to the company.
Neonics work by absorbing into a plant and spreading through the vascular system. These “systemic” insecticides have made the pesticide very convenient for users and reduces exposure to the surrounding environment. But they can also materialize in pollen that bees pick up and return to the hive, weakening the colony. Dust from seed coatings can also shake off and affect bees.
Scientists generally agree that all pesticides pose a threat to pollinator populations, but there is debate over whether it’s the top concern for overall bee health. A number of other factors—parasitic mites, loss of wild grasses and flowers and weather—also play a role.
Neonicotinoids came on the radar around 2008, when reports of bees fleeing their hives hit headlines. This mysterious “colony collapse disorder” drew attention to the importance of pollinators for food production and the environment.
Since, the situation has somewhat improved. The Department of Agriculture released a Aug. 1 survey that found a 40 percent drop in colonies lost due to symptoms associated with colony collapse disorder for honeybee operations with fewer than five colonies, and 27 percent less for operations with five or more colonies.
A recent survey from the Bee Informed Partnership shows that beekeepers lost about 33.2 percent of colonies between April 2016 and March 2017, a notable decrease from the 2012-2013 peak of 45 percent but still a troubling rate for the sector.
Ortho’s neonic alternatives work by killing bugs on contact, rather than systemically, Martin of Scotts Miracle-Gro said, eliminating any “collateral damage” to bees. The company’s four neonic alternatives contain pyrethrins and spinosad, plant and bacteria-based pesticides, and sulfur.
But Ortho’s alternatives are still sprays, meaning the product will drift on a windy day right as bees are feeding on nearby flowers, Frank Hale, an entomologist at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, said.
With neonics, homeowners can mix their product in a bucket of water, pour it around the base of a tree, cover it with mulch and let it seep to the roots to prevent the drift from happening.
“It could probably control the insects all summer,” Hale told Bloomberg BNA. “With even a light breeze, that drift can drift across your whole yard. It can drift into your neighbor’s pool.”
Martin knows that a neonic phase-out isn’t the only solution for helping pollinators. The company is working to improve the directions on the bottles and packages for the alternatives, like not spraying directly on a bloom, or applying when bees aren’t active, like early in the morning or late in the evening, he said.
Environmental groups that pressure retailers to stop selling neonics and plants treated with the pesticides, have taken notice.
“It’s a significant step for a manufacturer of that size to be signaling ‘hey, this is a problem, we want to be getting this out of out products’,” Tiffany Finck-Haynes, a campaigner with the advocacy group Friends of the Earth, told Bloomberg BNA.
More than 120 retailers have made varying commitments to not sell plants or products with neonics, Finck-Haynes said. Friends of the Earth has led a push to get box-store retailers to phase out the chemicals since 2013.
The company also formed a partnership with the Pollinator Stewardship Council at the time of the neonic announcement. Michele Colopy, program director of the Pollinator Stewardship Council, said the move is just the first step in a long-term effort.
The human error of applying pesticides the wrong way is any product’s biggest weakness, said Colopy.
“Our mission is not about banning pesticides,” Colopy told Bloomberg BNA. “It’s about education, it’s about maintaining habitat.”
“There seems to be a focus within the company [shifting away] from killing things to repelling things,” she added.
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