Hearing on pollinator health comes as EPA, USDA spar

By Tiffany Stecker | 05/11/2015 07:16 AM EDT

The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research will hold a hearing on pollinator health this week, the first in more than a year.

The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research will hold a hearing on pollinator health this week, the first in more than a year.

Two sources have said the witnesses will be Jim Jones, assistant administrator for U.S. EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Control, and Robert Johansson, acting chief economist for the Agriculture Department, although the House Agriculture Committee was unable to confirm the witness list late Friday afternoon. EPA and USDA are the two coordinating agencies for the White House Pollinator Health Task Force, which President Obama launched nearly a year ago (Greenwire, June 20, 2014).

Agriculture, pesticide, environmental and beekeeping interests are waiting for a long-expected report from the White House that will lay out steps federal agencies must take to reverse the significant decline in honeybees, butterflies, wild bees and other insects that carry pollen from one plant to the next.


Johansson, who stepped into the chief economist role on Jan. 1, entered the pollinator spotlight recently with a letter to EPA critical of the agency’s October analysis on neonicotinoid seed treatments for soybeans. The review found that neonicotinoid seed treatments, which have been linked to poor bee health, provide "little or no benefit" to soybean farmers (Greenwire, Oct. 17, 2014).

The review, wrote Johansson, "again puts growers in the position of defending their pest management decisions."

In the letter, Johansson states that USDA staff had specifically asked EPA to undertake a full risk assessment that would have weighed the benefits of neonicotinoid seed treatments for all crops, not just soybeans.

"Instead, EPA released the report regarding soybean seed treatment without additional consideration of other crops or to USDA cautions about releasing a premature assessment of the costs and benefits of such seed treatments," he wrote.

The strongly worded letter was distributed by pesticide and agriculture organizations last week, including neonicotinoid manufacturer Bayer Crop Science and the American Soybean Association.

One source said a congressional hearing would have made more sense after the release of the White House report, which is expected in the next few weeks. But the timing of the hearing is still appropriate, said Jay Vroom, president and CEO of CropLife America, the pest control trade group.

"There’s probably some things that deserve attention separately from the White House report," Vroom said. He didn’t point to EPA’s seed treatment analysis specifically, but added, "that’s certainly one of the many things that have occurred" that could come up in the hearing.

The hearing will likely focus on the seed treatment analysis as an example of the overall question on how USDA and EPA are working together, said a source working with agriculture groups.

"It seems like things are getting a little out of sync," said the source.

Groups like the American Honey Producers Association are concerned that the hearing is being set up as a conflict between USDA and EPA and won’t address the multiple issues that are affecting pollinator populations.

In addition to neonicotinoids, pollinators are suffering from a lack of forage and nutritious pollen, and from parasites like the Varroa mite that transmit diseases. Most scientists believe the decline in bees is due to a combination of these factors.

Beekeepers have been losing, on average, roughly 30 percent of their hives every winter for the last decade, according to USDA’s Bee Informed Partnership. The partnership is expected to announce its 2014-2015 overwintering loss numbers this week.

"Why do we continue to move down this road of ignoring the broader issue in Congress?" said one source close to the issue.

Members of the American Honey Producers Association, which represents commercial beekeepers, will come to Washington, D.C., for their annual fly-in this week.

Schedule: The hearing is Wednesday, May 13, at 1:30 p.m. in 1300 Longworth.

Witnesses: Jim Jones, EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention; and Robert Johansson, USDA acting chief economist.