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EPA Report: Neonicotinoids Provide Minimal Soybean Yield Help

The class of soybean pesticide seed treatments about which speculation has swirled on its impact on the decline of critical pollinator populations in the U.S. has now been deemed "of little or no benefit" to the crop, federal officials said Thursday.

Leaders of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Thursday a long-term study of neonicotinoid seed treatments they say have been "linked to a wide range of impacts on pollinators and are a driving factor in bee population declines" has shown the class of chemicals have basically no influence on soybean yield and, in turn, profitability.

"These seed treatments provide little or no overall benefits to soybean production in most situations," says EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention leader Jim Jones in a government report, citing from the report summarizing the study. "In comparison to the next best alternative pest control measures, neonicotinoid seed treatments likely provide $0 in benefits to growers."

Government leaders are quick to say the findings are limited to soybean production, of which 30% of the nation's acres are treated are typically treated with a neonicotinoid insecticide, many of them "prophylactic," or preventative in nature, an EPA report shows. This amounts to just over 22 million acres.

Neonicotinoid seed treatments are typically less expensive than foliar treatments. But, EPA's Thursday report shows their prophylactic application may amount to a waste of money, making a foliar application carrying a slightly higher cost a more worthwhile expense.

"EPA proprietary data show that on average from 2004 to 2012, approximately 65% of soybean growers in the U.S. indicated that they had no pest they were targeting when using neonicotinoid-treated seed. With 30% ofthe 75 million acres of soybeans in the U.S. being treated with neonicotinoid seed treatments, this implies that approximately 8.6 million of the 23 million soybean acres using neonicotinoid seed treatments derive potential benefits from the application. Multiplying through, if 8.6 million acres of soybeans derive benefits from neonicotinoid-treated seeds, the total benefit to soybean growers in the U.S. from neonicotinoid-treated seed is at most $52 million, or 0.14% of the total value of soybean production in the U.S., with the total value of soybeans being $38.7 billion/year, on average, from 2009-2013," according to Thursday's EPA report. "Again, these benefits are unlikely given the very low historical usage of the most costly foliar alternative and the equivalent cost of comparable alternatives for the pests targeted by neonicotinoid treated soybean seeds."

EPA officials admit in Thursday's report that the same data showing neonicotinoids' relative ineffectiveness could also throw a wrench in the study's overall conclusions.

"With regard to three-cornered alfalfa hoppers and soil insects such as wireworms and seed maggots, which are commonly found in high numbers in the Southern U.S., our analysis indicated that these pests have not historically driven pesticide usage. However, it is possible that soybean growers have achieved some yield protection or 'insurance' benefit by usage of neonicotinoid seed treatments," according to EPA. "Given the sporadic nature of these pests, it is difficult to project how much actual yield protection is gained on a year to year basis from the use of seed treatments, especially without knowing the potential for injury prior to planting."

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