ST. LOUIS (DTN) -- Matt Hughes is scrutinizing every input cost this spring on his central Illinois farming operation, but there's one he's not willing to give up.
Neonicotinoid insecticide seed treatments, which cost extra and have come under attack on multiple fronts in the past year, might seem ripe for removal. Yet despite some aggressive cost-cutting efforts -- such as planting less expensive, non-GE corn and bean seed -- Hughes is sticking with fully treated corn and soybeans this year.
Hughes' decision is not an unusual one, ag experts and company representatives told DTN. Despite government, academic and environmentalist criticism of neonicotinoid use, company seed offerings and replant policies continue to strongly favor them and their use is at an all-time high in the industry.
An EPA report last fall concluded that neonicotinoid insecticide seed treatments on soybeans yield little to no benefit for most Midwestern growers (although it conceded that Southern growers may find more value in them). Many northern and southeastern university entomologists have endorsed this conclusion, which they say is supported by years of field research and experience. Most recently, the EPA imposed a moratorium on any new uses of neonicotinoid products until the agency's registration review of the chemicals is complete later this year or in 2016. Through it all, environmentalists have continually called for the total removal of neonicotinoids from the market, citing pollinator health concerns.
Despite these developments, most farmers continue to opt for neonicotinoid seed treatments, generally from a mixture of sales pressure, risk aversion, and the lack of good alternatives. Numbers on their use aren't abundant, but a recent study from Penn State University concluded the introduction of neonicotinoid insecticide seed treatments in 2003 created "an unprecedented shift toward large-scale, pre-emptive insecticide use: 34%-44% of soybeans and 79%-100% of maize hectares," as of 2011.
"Untreated seed is unprotected from pests except for what the genetics can bring," Syngenta's head of North American corporate communications Paul Minehart told DTN, echoing his colleagues from across the industry. "That's why we recommend seed treatment -- it reduces risk and results in better performance than not using seed treatment."
Large seed companies like Syngenta, Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, and more regional operations like Beck's Hybrids, maintain seed offerings and replant policies that strongly favor choosing seed fully treated with fungicides, neonicotinoid insecticides, and other ingredients, from biologicals to nematicides.
With the exception of Pioneer, none of these companies offer any corn seed without neonicotinoid seed treatments for U.S. growers. Untreated corn seed from Pioneer, while available, isn't abundant after winter orders are placed and growers need to ask for it early in the fall or winter to help ensure they get it, Pioneer's global seed treatment communications lead Janelle Buxton told DTN. "They're more the exception than the norm," she said of such requests.
Growers can more often opt for untreated soybean seed, but with varying levels of difficulty.
Beck's Hybrids doesn't offer any untreated soybean seed, and growers would have to turn to its sister company, Great Harvest Organics, to find some, said Tom Hooper, the company's director of sales.
Untreated soybean seed from Pioneer, Monsanto or Syngenta is more readily available, but the companies' replant policies discourage that selection. Fully treated soybean seed comes with robust replant coverage -- if the stand fails, growers can usually get up to 100% seed reimbursement for replanting the crop. Once growers start to remove all or parts of the seed treatment, such as neonicotinoid insecticides, that replant coverage falls. Monsanto's drops to 75%, and Syngenta and Pioneer offer only 50% base coverage for their genetics if no seed treatments are used, company representatives confirmed.
For many growers like Hughes, the drop in replant coverage is a major deterrent. "That's one of the reasons we throw everything on the seed," Hughes said of his decision to treat all his bean seed. "We don't know what the conditions will be like at planting time, and it's expensive to replant, both in time spent in the field and seed costs."
Commodity prices have lowered the overall value of his soybean crop, but seed prices have remained high, Hughes added. "Some type of seed treatment is a given to get the most value out of this high-priced seed," he said.
Not all farmers are sold on this logic. Lucas Criswell hasn't treated his soybean seed for the past three years on his Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, farm. Although the plants often look rough in the early stages of growth, they compensate well and yield competitively, he said. For now, he'll continue to take the risk of untreated soybean seed and no replant coverage. "I really get tired of being pushed into using something for insurance," he told DTN.
In corn, the lack of untreated options has forced Criswell to take drastic measures to avoid neonicotinoids. This year he added non-GE corn hybrids to his line-up, because they were the only untreated corn seed he could find.
In soybean fields with a history of certain pest problems, such as the seed corn maggot or bean leaf beetle, or fields for seed production, treated seed is important and necessary, University of Minnesota Extension IPM specialist Bruce Potter told DTN. But those pests are sporadic and fairly rare for Midwestern growers. Moreover, university research has shown that neonicotinoids do not persist in the soybean plant tissue beyond the emergence of the third trifoliate, which makes protection against more common, later-season pests like the soybean aphid highly unlikely.
"Growers are viewing it as insurance, but the data on neonicotinoid use in northern soybean areas suggests that they're buying insurance they probably don't need," Potter said.
Amidst the swirl of information for and against neonicotinoid seed treatments, a farmer's decision is as likely to stem from farming philosophies as it is from marketing pressure or field research data, Potter concluded.
"The hard part about this is you're basically talking about two management philosophies," he said. "One is to treat everything the same and try to minimize your risk, and the cost of that insurance is secondary. The other one is to manage your risk but target your investment to where you're more likely to get a return."
The lack of alternatives to neonicotinoids for insecticide seed treatments could leave the industry and farmers vulnerable if the EPA decides to restrict the use of the chemicals in its pending registration review.
Pioneer is offering a new, non-neonicotinoid insecticide seed treatment in 2015 -- a product called Lumivia. The insecticide's active ingredient belongs to a new class of chemistry, the anthranilic diamides, and the company has limited supplies available for its newest corn hybrids this spring. However, the product is not registered for soybean use in the U.S., and Lumivia is only sold as part of a larger seed treatment that also contains neonicotinoids, Buxton said.
For now, insect seed protection in soybeans hinges on neonicotinoids, and growers would be wise to use them more selectively, Potter said. "We really don't want to lose these compounds," he said. "It behooves people to think about where they're using these and how often, because otherwise we're running the risk of serious regulation."
Emily Unglesbee can be reached at email@example.com.
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