On May 22, 2024
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Gov. Scott vetoes bill that would’ve restricted bee-killing pesticide

Staff report

On Monday, May 20, World Bee Day, Gov. Phil Scott vetoed legislation meant to protect bees and other pollinators from a widely-used neuorotoxic pesticide. The bill (H.706) would  eliminate most uses of neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics) in Vermont, which have been associated with alarming losses of managed and wild bee populations.

Neonic insecticides are used on almost all corn grown and much of the soybean grown in Vermont. They’re also sprayed on apple trees, other fruits and vegetables, and ornamental plants.

Many environmentalists and beekeepers have supported the legislation because of research that shows the deadly impact of neonicotinoids on native pollinators and honeybee colonies.

A comprehensive 2020 study from Cornell University found that neonic-treated seeds were more costly and yielded no substantial benefit to farmers in terms of crop yields for corn and soybeans. In Quebec, where neonics have been banned on field crops since 2019, farmers have adjusted well to using other alternative seed treatments, and many are using no pesticide treatment on seeds at all and finding no loss in yield.

In his letter to lawmakers explaining his veto, Scott agreed that pollinators are “essential to growing food and maintaining a healthy, thriving ecosystem.”

But he contended that the “same is true of farmers, who are also critical contributors to our economy,” arguing the legislation is “more anti-farmer than it is pro-pollinator.”

“This bill unfairly targets dairy farmers reliant on corn crops,” he wrote, “and will harm farmers without achieving its goals for pollinators.”

Environmentalists, beekeepers and supporters of the bill in the House and Senate (it passed both chambers by wide margins: 25-2 vote in the Senate and by voice vote in the House, but earlier by a margin of 112 -29), however, strongly disagree with the governor. 

“It is disappointing that Governor Scott has chosen to veto this bill and the wealth of scientific research that supports it,” said Emily May, Pollinator Conservation Biologist, Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

Scientific evidence, supporters of the bill content, shows that neonics provide little benefit to most farmers, but can cause substantial harm. Since their introduction in the mid-1990s, neonics have made U.S. agriculture 48times more harmful to insects and been linked with massive losses of bees. Over the most recent five-year period for which data are available, Vermont beekeepers lost an average 53% of their hives every year. These losses of managed bees provide insight into the losses occurring each year in Vermont’s 300+ species of wild bees, which undergird ecosystems and are also important crop pollinators.

“It’s hard to believe that the governor chose World Bee Day to veto this sensible legislation to protect bees and other pollinators from toxic pesticides while supporting farmers through a just transition to safer alternatives,” said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Legislators will have a chance next month to override the veto and stand up for both pollinators and public health.”

Statewide polling released in March found nearly universal agreement among Vermonters about the importance of pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and moths, and deep concern over their declining numbers, according to the the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. 

The survey also found 83% of Vermonters in support of “a phaseout of nearly all neonic pesticides in Vermont, with exemptions available in case of emergency.”  This language tracks the key elements of H.706.

H.706 also proposes a ban on other uses of the pesticides, such as spraying them on certain types of crops or any ornamental plants, and on any crop while it’s in bloom. 

Additionally, the bill includes a provision that would repeal Vermont’s ban on neonicotinoid treated seeds if New York’s ban is repealed.

Effects on human health

More than 90% of all corn and 50% of soybeans are grown from seeds coated with neonics, and they are used extensively on other cereal and oil crops and fruit and vegetables, according to the National Library of Medicine.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2014 pesticide monitoring report found neonics in 12 of 19 different fruits and vegetables sampled, with 11 of these containing multiple neonics,” the Library reported.

So it’s not just pollinators that are threatened by neonics. Last month, a group of doctors and medical experts weighed in with a letter to senators considering the bill. They noted that:

“Exposures to neurotoxic chemicals like neonics during pregnancy and early in life raise special concerns— similar to those raised by lead and mercury—because of the exquisite sensitivity of the developing brain and nervous system. Tragically, experience demonstrates that even minuscule exposures to lead and mercury can lead to lifelong neurological harm, including reduced intelligence (i.e., lower IQ scores), shorter attention spans, and behavioral disruptions.”

One national study testing 171 pregnant women across the country found that neonics were detected in over 95% of the participants.

“The world is moving beyond these destructive pesticides, and with New York recently following in the footsteps of Quebec’s successful model for eliminating needless uses, it should be a no-brainer for Vermont, too,” said Dan Raichel, director of NRDC’s pollinators and pesticides initiative. “We hope the legislature continues their leadership and takes up this important bipartisan bill in the veto session to make sure Vermont doesn’t fall behind its neighbors in protecting its people and pollinators.”

Override?

In his veto message, the governor repeated the debunked claim that the honeybee population is growing in Vermont. In fact, Vermont bee colonies are in decline. Many bees are imported into the state for temporary use, but scientists made clear in testimony before the Legislature that importing bees is not an indication of bee health in Vermont. 

“It appears that the governor was misled by his advisors on this one,” said Burns. “It’s a shame he didn’t take the time to listen to farmers in places that have moved past using toxic neonics. It’s possible to help save the bees and support farmers, too. That’s what this legislation does.”

Despite the governor’s veto, the bill can still become law if legislators override the veto when they return to Montpelier for a special session beginning June 17. And both the House and Senate may have enough votes to override Scott’s veto, based on the wide margins of support for the bill as written.

If legislators override his veto, the seed ban would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2029. 

The bill would also allow the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to issue an exemption order if a farmer experienced environmental or agricultural emergencies involving a pest presenting “an imminent risk of significant harm, injury, or loss to agricultural crops.” The farmer would only be eligible for such an exemption if they could not effectively substitute another legal pesticide to address the pest.

Emma Cotton/VTDigger contributed to this reporting.

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