We were extremely busy on the Floor of the House this week starting with 43 bills on the House Calendar on Tuesday. This was not unexpected because of the crossover deadline the week before our Town Meeting break. We were able to work through numerous bills over the course of the week but committee time was somewhat limited.
I did receive a number of emails regarding our Pollinator Protection Bill, H.915 requesting that we strengthen the bill. I wrote about this in February explaining some of the thought process behind what we did but it may be worth repeating.
There is another bill, H.688, sponsored by a number of House members that called for several things. It essentially banned the household use of neonicotinoid pesticides in the State of Vermont. Quoting from the bill “The bill prohibits a person from selling a neonicotinoid pesticide at retail unless the person has a pesticide dealer license and the pesticide is sold to a person with a Class A applicator license.” Agriculture would be exempt from the ban. Another requirement is that the Secretary of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) recommend treated article seeds that are appropriate for the control of the specific pests that threaten Vermont crops. Farmers using treated seed would be required to report the amount and location of treated seed that they use. Pesticide registration fees would be increased and the resulting money put in a fund to compensate persons whose crops are damaged. The Secretary of AAFM would be required to establish an Integrated Pest and Pollinator Management Program by contracting with a university with agricultural expertise.
When we enact legislation, it is important that it be practical, realistic, and enforceable. Banning these products for household use in Vermont would be extremely difficult to enforce, given our proximity to neighboring states New Hampshire, New York, and Massachusetts where the products are legal. In order to enforce this provision, a person would have to report the infraction to the AAFM, which would then have to deal with an enforcement procedure.
We felt that a much more practical and effective measure would be to have the AAFM produce a number of Public Service Announcements (PSA), educating Vermonters as to the ramifications of use of these products on pollinators and other beneficial insects. In the past, PSAs have been used to good effect for educational purposes regarding the use of phosphorus on lawns, particularly in the Lake Champlain watershed.
Exempting agriculture from the conversation is a mistake. Neonicotinoids are used in seed treatments on virtually every non-organic corn seed planted in the state. This is a brilliant marketing strategy on the part of the company that makes neonics but the prophylactic treatment may not be necessary depending on soil conditions. A small portion of the neonic pesticide is taken up into the plant and the rest is left in the soil. This then becomes subject to run-off and is introduced into the waters of the state, which appears to be having a negative effect on benthic macroinvertebrates such as caddisflies, stoneflies, and dragonflies.
On July 1, 2015, Ontario, Canada, created new rules regarding the sale and use of neonicotinoid-treated seed – their goal being to reduce the amount of treated seed being used. They phased in implementation to allow vendors and farmers time to adapt to the new regulatory requirements. Results to date indicate that between 2014 (baseline data) and 2017 the amount of treated corn seed planted has decreased by 22% and the amount of treated soybean seed has decreased by 27% for an average of 25%. One of the stumbling blocks to implementation, as I understand it, has been the availability of untreated seed. In H.915, we are requiring seed dealers who sell treated seed to also make available untreated seed. This does not seem to be a problem for seed dealers; however untreated seed will need to be ordered in October before the growing season.
Asking the AAFM to make recommendations regarding treated seeds that are appropriate for the control of the specific pests that threaten Vermont crops would be a questionable use of time given that conditions vary widely around the state. A more appropriate practice might be to ask farmers to justify the use of treated seeds depending on the conditions they face. At this point, asking farmers to report how much treated seed they use could provide a baseline if we decide to implement something similar to Ontario, but we know that the vast majority of corn seed planted is treated and it would potentially be easier to ask seed dealers for that information.
The requirement that we institute a new fee is a non-starter, given that the governor has been very clear that he would veto anything that included a fee. We want to take another successful step regarding pollinator protection and do not want our work vetoed.
Asking the Secretary of AAFM to establish and Integrated Pest and Pollinator Management Program by contracting with a university with agricultural expertise would not be possible at this time because there is not money to engage in a contract. Perhaps in the future such an effort would make sense but there would have to be an idea of what our goals would be to justify it.
It should also be noted that in 2016 the Legislature passed a bill giving the AAFM authority to regulate treated articles, which include telephone poles, treated lumber, and treated seed, if a problem arises. We are the only state in the nation that has this authority.
While there are those who may think that H.915 should be strengthened by including some of the provisions included in H.688, I believe we will have achieved a good step forward if H.915 makes it through the entire process and becomes law. Continued study of the overall effect that neonicotinoid pesticides are having on the environment, also included in our bill, is necessary to make a case for the next steps we should take.
On another note, it was delightful to have Vermont Farm Bureau members from all over the state visit with us in committee. We were very lucky to have Chip and Carleen Hellis from Dummerston and Terry Gulick from Springfield share with us some of the challenges that farmers are facing.
As an example, as dairy farms fail due to low milk prices, many of their animals are going to slaughter, which is driving down the price of beef and thereby affecting our beef farmers as well. Farms are diversifying to make up for these factors but many farmers are struggling and just getting by. More on this next week!