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Government Affairs: Lowe’s joins Home Depot in phasing out neonics

May 1, 2015 -  By

Lowe'sOn April 9 Lowe’s said it’s phasing out shelf products that contain neonicotinoid-containing pesticides (neonics) and will work with growers over the next four years to eliminate the use of neonics on bee-attractive plants they sell.

Lowe’s made the announcement on page 27 of its 2014 “Social Responsibility Report” in a section titled “Listening to Stakeholders.”

Lowe’s joins Home Depot and independent garden center chain Bachman’s, who last year announced that they were phasing out neonic-containing shelf products and plants that had been treated with neonics during propagation and grow-out (see my September 2014 blog post).

Science or stakeholder pressure?

But while taking action to phase out neonics, Lowe’s acknowledged its move was driven by more by “stakeholder“ pressure than scientific evidence showing neonics are the cause of honey-bee colony collapse disorder (CCD).

Lowe’s Social Responsibility report states:

“Studies indicate that multiple factors, including mites, poor nutrition, loss of habitat and genetic conditions, are potentially damaging the health of pollinators. Some studies say that neonicotinoid (neonics) pesticides may be a factor.”

The state of the science

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which has been the lead federal agency investigating honey bee CCD, concludes that, “No scientific cause for CCD has been proven.”

USDA outlines a wide range of potential threats to honey bee populations:

“But CCD is far from the only risk to the health of honey bees and the economic stability of commercial beekeeping and pollination operations in the United States. Since the 1980s, honey bees and beekeepers have had to deal with a host of new pathogens from deformed wing virus to nosema fungi, new parasites such as Varroa mites, pests like small hive beetles, nutrition problems from lack of diversity or availability in pollen and nectar sources, and possible sublethal effects of pesticides.”

In a 2014 report, USDA concludes there’s a growing consensus among researchers that one of the largest contributors to poor colony health and colony losses is the Varroa mite, an Asian bee parasite first found in the U.S. in 1987.

Hive losses due to CCD fell during the winter of 2013-2014, which USDA suggests may have been due to more aggressive treatment by beekeepers for Varroa mites. In fact, USDA recommends aggressive treatment for the Varroa mite as one of the most effect means of staving off CCD in commercial hives.

Honey bees do play an important role in U.S. food production, increasing crop yields by an estimated $15 billion per year. Some crops, such as almonds, rely almost exclusively on pollination by commercial honey bee colonies, according to ARS. Many fruit tree crops, such as apples and peaches, also rely on commercial honey bee pollination.

Neonics effective and less toxic

Neonics have been shown to be an effective and less toxic solution to controlling insect pests, which accounts for their now widespread use in production agriculture and the managed landscape. Neonics are the only effective treatment for the hemlock wooly adelgid, which is devastating native hemlocks in forests and home landscapes. Likewise, neonics are the only effective treatment for control of the emerald ash borer, which threatens to wipe out ash species across North America.

But public opinion is running ahead of the science when it comes to the health of the honey bee population. Anti-neonic groups have mounted a very effective public relations campaign targeted at large retail chains that carry neonic shelf products and neonic-treated plants. Home Depot and Lowe’s were the first to fall. So far Walmart has made no public statements on use of neonics in its garden center products and plants, but it’s clearly in the crosshairs of the anti-neonic forces.

How will this affect you?

How will this trend affect professional use of neonics in the managed landscape?

First, you may find some of your customers request you not to use neonic-treated plants in your installations or neonic-containing pesticides in the maintenance work you do. The anti-neonic forces have been quite successful in molding public opinion on this issue.

Second, some states and localities may impose their own restrictions on neonicotinoid use. Last year, the city of Eugene, Ore., banned the use of neonics on city property. The state of Oregon recently banned the use of neonics on linden trees and other Tilia species. Others may follow as the anti-neonic forces move to the local and state levels with their campaign. (See my February blog post on state and local pesticide laws.)

Finally, I don’t think we’ll see a federal ban on neonic use in the near future, if at all. EPA has begun a review of all neonics, but their reports are not due until 2017-2019.

I would not be surprised to see some further label restrictions on the use of neonics, but the possibility of an outright ban is remote. Hopefully, in reaching a decision on the future on neonics, EPA will follow the science and not public opinion.

For more information on neonics and pollinator health, AmericanHort has an excellent website and video on the topic. Go to http://americanhort.org/bees.

Image: Flickr.com/MikeMozart

About the Author:

Gregg Robertson, Landscape Management's government relations blogger, is a government relations consultant for the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association (PLNA) and president of Conewago Ventures. From 2002 until May 2013 he served as president of PLNA. Reach him at gregg.robertson@conewagoventures.com.

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