From Cotton Grower Magazine – July 2015
After nearly a year of anticipation, President Barack Obama and his administration released their Pollinator Research Action Plan in late May. Though many in agriculture had feared the policy announcement would have difficult ramifications for American farmers, initial reactions have been mostly positive.
In June of 2014, the White House released a memorandum announcing its intentions to create a federal strategy to address pollinator health. The announcement came on the heels of concerns over population declines in honeybees. Scientists estimate that honeybee populations began to suffer greater over-wintering losses sometime around the mid-2000s, although the reasons for these population declines remain murky.
As part of his memorandum, the President created a Pollinator Health Task Force and enlisted Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Gina McCarthy to co-chair the group. From there, he enlisted over 13 federal agencies to make recommendations on how they could assist in the cause.
The end result was the Pollinator Research Action Plan, released on May 19, which outlined three major overarching initiatives: to reduce honey bee colony losses during winter to no more than 15 percent within 10 years; to increase eastern monarch butterfly populations to 225 million butterflies by year 2020; and to restore or enhance seven million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years.
The White House has enlisted multiple federal agencies to assist in achieving these goals.
“Different agencies can assist in different ways,” said Don Parker, manager of Integrated Pest Management at the National Cotton Council. “Some of these agencies have a lot of land – federally-owned land – and those agencies can improve habitat by planting lots of those lands and providing access to beekeepers for bees to forage on those lands.
“Others can improve by planting monarch forage land.”
Parker says other agencies will be pitching in with research and data gathering, so that the scientific community can have a more accurate understanding of the depth of these problems.
The EPA Weighs In
The White House release in May was significant in what it didn’t say. Specifically, it did not mention pesticide use regulations. Many in the cotton community feared the President would follow the lead of European leaders and single out neonicotinoids as a major factor in pollinator population declines – even though the evidence of the class of pesticide’s impact is inconclusive.
“If you read the press and read the literature, the number one factor that rises to the top and catches all the blame is pesticides, and specifically neonicotinoids,” said University of Tennessee Extension Entomologist Scott Stewart, while speaking on the topic at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in January – before the president’s release in May.
“Regardless of what the science says now…we’re going to see label changes. We already have. (There could be) loss of products, delays of registration in new products, and increased record keeping requirements.”
While the President’s National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators made no mention of pesticide use in agriculture, a response from the Environmental Protection Agency hinted that pesticide use is still being considered as a possible cause for honey bee population declines.
“The first thing that EPA proposed to do, is that whenever a producer contracts bees to pollinate his crop – some crops like almonds require honey bees for pollination – in those situations, there is a risk concern,” explained Parker. “The EPA proposal is to prohibit the application of acutely toxic pesticides during bloom.”