Farming Practices Provide Multiple Benefits: Pollinator and Specialty Crop Protection and Greater Profits for Farmers
By Mary Fund
“No Bees, No Coffee” read a sign in a short video clip about pollinator decline at KRC’s recent workshop. That certainly can catch attention. “Pollinators, pesticides, and drift” were the topics covered at the May 20 workshop in Wichita where twenty people braved the forecast of more heavy rain amid flash flood watches to spend a day hearing from researchers, beekeepers and farmers.
“85% of all plants require pollination. One of every three bites of food we eat depend on pollination,” stated Joanna Will, KRC’s Pollinator Project Coordinator, in her introduction to the workshop. The importance of pollinators to food production and thus food security should be clear. “As Jonathan Lundgren (director of ECDYSIS Foundation and former USDA entomologist) has bluntly stated,” explained Will, “No pollinators, no plants, no people.”
But pollinators are in decline and have been for decades. This includes honey bees in commercial production as well as wild bees, and a host of other pollinators. The reasons are varied—habitat loss, disease, climate change, and pesticides in the environment are top concerns. In the past, pesticide drift was not considered a cause of pollinator decline but recent research indicates there is more connection than previously thought.
40% of the nation’s honey bees were lost in 2015-2016. This counts just commercial or home hives, not the feral wild colonies, or other pollinators. The apiary industry adds $11.7 billion to the U.S. economy, so this is no small loss. As a beekeeper on the opening video explained, “Bees are livestock. If 40% of all cattle died in a year, you’d see action!”
“Pollinators are not just harmed by pesticide use, but also by seed treatments,” explained Will. Neonicotinoids, a family of insecticides used as a seed treatment, are used on nearly all U.S. corn, sunflower and canola seed. Thirty to 40 percent of U.S. soybean seed is treated as well.
(Corn and soybeans acreage totaled about 180 million acres in the U.S. last year.) Instead of waiting for plants to show a problem, the seed is treated preemptively and the growing plant takes up the insecticide that will protect it from early season pests.
Only 2 – 20% of the neonic coating is taken up by the plant, while the rest travels beyond the plant and even beyond the field, continuing to have an impact. Some studies have shown that even on organic farms, their buffer strips are showing traces of neonics which can harm pollinators, since those strips are often where the most attractive plants are. Dust from the treated seeds that travels during planting can carry the impact beyond the field. There is also some evidence that the neonics travel through the soil. Some entomologists are recommending that farmers not use coated seed and do pest scouting to determine when and if they need to spray.
According to Angela Anderson, past Kansas Wildlife Federation president, explained that neonicotinoids do not need to be applied; pest scouting can determine whether a problem is serious and needs treating after planting. Also urban homeowners contribute to the problems because many nurseries use a neonic treatment on potted flowers and other landscape plants that travels as they are transplanted. According to Anderson, the National Wildlife Federation passed a resolution in 2017 to suspend all uses of neonicot-
inoids in the United States, much as many European countries have done in order to protect pollinators, and hopes others will help them shine a spotlight on the issue.
Kansas beekeepers and specialty crop growers also report problems from pesticide drift from nearby commodity crop farms. Vegetables and fruits are especially susceptible to drift. Growers noted that not all farmers take a proactive approach to when to spray or follow the right conditions for spraying that would eliminate or reduce the off-site damage. They sometimes face belligerent neighbors who are impatient with smaller specialty crop producers. The education need for how and when to apply as well as alternatives to use, is huge, they argued.
KRC’s Feeding Kansas report (2014) identified drift as a critical issue that specialty crop producers and grape growers and other fruit producers face as they try to scale up the specialty crop sector in Kansas.
Driftwatch.org is a website that offers a voluntary registry for specialty crop growers, organic farmers, beekeepers, or any other sensitive crop grower to use to alert pesticide applicators and neighbors about locations of their sensitive fields. But how many applicators especially individual farmers who apply their own pesticides, use the site is unknown.
“The good news is that agriculture can play a big role in reversing the decline of pollinators and in reducing pesticide reliance,“ emphasized Will. “Integrated pest management, organic farming practices which use no pesticides, no till without or limited use of pesticides, and regenerative or sustainable agricultural practices including cover crops that attract beneficial insects or reduce the need for pesticides, are all on the rise as farmers change farming practices. “Those changes can be made for any of several purposes, but all have multiple benefits such as reducing or eliminating pesticide use, building soil health, and reducing input costs, all while protecting pollinators.
Research done by Claire LeCanne, while doing her graduate thesis, highlighted the benefits of using a more ecological approach and focusing on biodiversity on farms. LeCann, who is now with the University of Minnesota Research and Extension, joined the workshop via remote Zoom connection. Looking at twenty farms through the Northern Great Plains, her work compared corn production on conventional and regenerative farms through insect diversity, soil properties or soil health, yields and profitability. The conventional farms used no cover crops, GMO seeds, insecticides and some tillage, while the regenerative farms used cover crops, no till practices, and no insecticides (although a couple of farms did use GMO seed). There was also variation among the regenerative farms in the number of cover crops in the mixes ranging from 2 species to 5 to 10 to 16 species.
Results can generally be summed up like this: regenerative systems with cover crops correlated with more diversity, more beneficial species, more invertebrates, better water infiltration, and microbial biomass. Conventional systems had less diversity, less abundance of invertebrates, and ten times more pests. The research highlighted the importance of soil health and how regenerative practices, especially a diverse cover crop mix, can improve soil health and thus reduce the need for treated seed, insecticides and purchased fertilizer.
Profits were also higher in the regenerative system. Yields were 29% lower than conventional system, but profits were 78% higher. This was largely driven by the higher costs of seed and fertilizer on the conventional farms (32% of gross income went to these inputs in in the conventional fields versus 12% in regenerative fields.) There was also higher revenue on the regenerative fields partly as some had organic premiums or direct marketed the grain. (LeCanne’s research was funded through the USDA SARE program and a report can be found at https://projects.sare.org/project-reports/gnc16-227/.
Other research described by Steve Swaffar, No Till on the Plains Executive Director, also pointed to how farmers applying soil health principles will use less chemicals, have more beneficial insects, and require lower inputs such as purchased fertilizers. NTOP’s research, funded by a NCR SARE producer grant, and continues this summer, is looking at use of companion strips of multiple species of cover crops to attract predator insects to the sugar cane aphid that decimated grain sorghum production in Kansas a few years ago. Many farmers abandoned growing sorghum rather than spray multiple times. But, thus far the companion
strips show promise on producing predator insects, and are also improving soil health and lowering costs.
Andy Burr from the State Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office covered the conservation practices and technical assistance that NRCS can help producers adopt or implement. “Pollinators were a part of the 2004 and 2008 farm bills and although not absolutely clear on the current USDA emphasis, there are many conservation practices that can protect or establish pollinator habitat on the farm and/or reduce pesticide use.” These include cover crops, conservation crop rotations, field borders, prescribed grazing and burning, pollinator habitat.
The question summing up the day – if regenerative farming practices with cover crops and soil health building practices are good for pollinators, good for the soil, reduce pesticide and fertilizer reliance, and are more profitable for farmers—why are more farmers not adopting them? And how do we get more farmers to make these changes? “That is the $64,000 question,” answered NTOP’s Swaffar. Or perhaps we should call that the “$64 million dollar question?
Chemical and fertilizer companies and seed companies (the GMO companies that is) do not profit from regenerative farming systems if those systems reduce farmer reliance on them. They have powerful lobby groups. Farm policy does not yet provide enough incentives to support more food production as opposed to commodity crops. But clearly, local and regional food production, and long term food security depends on these alternative farming practices taking greater hold of the farm and food sector. These practices are gaining traction and support.
The Pollinator, Pesticides and Drift workshop was funded by the Ceres Trust. Contact Joanna Will at email@example.com for more information.