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By David Schultz
Feb. 12 — The Environmental Protection Agency's top pesticide regulators met privately last month with pesticide industry-funded researchers to hear them make the case for the value of neonicotinoid insecticides, according to documents made public Feb. 10.
The researchers, Paul Mitchell and Pete Nowak from the firm Ag Informatics, were responding to a recently issued EPA study that found treating soybean seeds with neonicotinoids provides farmers with no significant financial or agricultural benefits.
At the Jan. 22 closed-door meeting at the EPA's Arlington, Va., offices, Mitchell and Nowak presented the findings of their own study, which found that banning neonicotinoids would impose $848 million a year in initial transition costs on the agriculture industry and lead to huge increases in the use of older, more dangerous and less effective insecticides.
Mitchell and Nowak found that neonicotinoids are applied to 56 percent of all corn, soybean, cotton, wheat and sorghum crops planted in the U.S. The vast majority of the time—98 percent, according to their research—the neonicotinoid insecticide was applied as a seed treatment prior to planting.
The researchers also conducted a telephone survey of 1,240 soy and corn farmers in the U.S. and Canada, which found that between 75 and 80 percent would continue to use neonicotinoid-treated seeds even if non-treated seeds were available.
Their study was funded by a coalition of four pesticide companies: Bayer CropScience, Syngenta, Valent and Mitsui Agrochemicals.
More than a dozen EPA officials came to the meeting, according to a list of attendees posted online.
They included Jack Housenger and William Jordan, the No. 1 and No. 2 officials in the EPA Office of Pesticide Programs, as well as the directors of the office's Biological and Economic Analysis Division, which prepared the EPA study, and the office's Pesticide Re-Evaluation Division.
Officials from the Department of Agriculture's Office of Pest Management Policy also attended the meeting, along with representatives from Bayer, Syngenta and Valent as well as the pesticide industry groups CropLife America and Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment.
Officials with the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and the Canadian Pest Management Regulatory Agency also participated.
Jordan told Bloomberg BNA that the meeting was requested by the pesticide companies that funded the study and was not open to the public.
He said there was a back-and-forth discussion between the researchers and the EPA officials, but that no audio or video recording or other type of documentation of this discussion was created.
“This kind of meeting is common,” Jordan said. “We meet with the representatives of lots of different external stakeholders. Anything we do with regard to neonicotinoids will be put through a public review process.”
Nowak, a former environmental studies professor at the University of Wisconsin, told Bloomberg BNA that his study received “a very positive response” from the officials in attendance.
“They clearly recognized that this wasn’t whitewashed, or a bunch of hacks speaking for the [agriculture] industry,” he said. “They recognized it was a really rigorous, academic, science-based analysis.”
Nowak said his team reached a conclusion opposite to that of the EPA's seed treatment study because the EPA study weighed “significantly less data than what we did.”
He said there was discussion at the meeting about providing the EPA with access to the raw data his team worked with. Nowak is eager to do so, but said his clients must first clear the data through their respective legal departments.
Nowak said he expects to eventually provide the agency with his data, but that some parts of it that deal with the impacts of neonicotinoids on crop yields may have to be withheld from the public because they are proprietary.
Environmental groups advocating for tighter restrictions on neonicotinoids said they weren't surprised that the agency held a private meeting with the pesticide industry on this topic.
“The EPA has an open-door policy with industry to give these sorts of presentations,” Peter Jenkins, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety, told Bloomberg BNA. “It’s a very close relationship.”
Jenkins said the EPA also meets with environmental groups on these types of issues, but these meetings usually take place in more formal, structured settings, such as through the biannual Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee.
Nichelle Harriott, a staff scientist with the advocacy group Beyond Pesticides, said she's aware that the EPA meets regularly with industry representatives, but wishes the agency would “let the public know beforehand that they’re having meetings with the industry and be more transparent about how many meetings they have.”
Neonicotinoid insecticides have come under intense scrutiny in recent years because of their suspected harmful effects on pollinator insects, such as bees, wasps and butterflies. Populations of these insects have declined dramatically within the past decade.
The EPA is currently reviewing the registrations of all five neonicotinoid chemicals the agency has approved. It is scheduled to complete its first review of these insecticides as early as next year.
Last year, the White House issued a memorandum to federal agencies instructing them to develop a comprehensive federal strategy to address pollinator health.
As part of that memorandum, the President specifically instructed the EPA to “assess the effect of pesticides, including neonicotinoids, on bee and other pollinator health and take action, as appropriate.”
Jim Jones, head of the EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, told Bloomberg BNA in a Dec. 12 interview that the president's actions accelerated his office's timeline for these registration reviews.
“We’ve picked up at least a year on that as a result of the attention,” he said. “The presidential memo brought a greater level of priority.”
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Mitchell and Nowak's study is available at http://op.bna.com/env.nsf/r?Open=dscz-9tnmnz.
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