5.8.2015 – Raw Milk and Neonicotinoids

It is apparent that we are coming down the homestretch of this legislative year. The goal is to adjourn the 2015 Session on May 15 or 16, but there is a lot that needs to be accomplished before then.

We are waiting for several big bills from the Senate including Budget, Revenue, Water Quality, and Education. The House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee is also waiting for H.484, an act relating to miscellaneous agricultural subjects, otherwise known as the “housekeeping” bill. Typically, the housekeeping bill includes primarily technical changes and that was the case with the bill we sent to the Senate. It is coming back to us with some additions including one we asked for that has to do with unpasteurized (raw) milk.

As a result of spending the majority of the first part of the Session working on H.35, the Water Quality bill, we did not have time to take up H.426, an act relating to the expansion of raw milk sales. Last fall, the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) made some policy changes that made it even more difficult for Tier 2 raw milk producers. They are already doing the additional testing and sampling to assure safe, quality milk.

The two principles guiding our committees’ work are food safety and economic opportunity for farmers. Our job is to balance the two and the proposals we offered to the Senate do that. Currently, farmers have test their milk twice a month and have to send it in the jars in which it is sold, so frequently half gallon mason jars get sent to the labs. This is cumbersome, expensive, and doesn’t really prove what we want it to so we are allowing milk to be sent in smaller vials that may go via courier service. We also hope to allow for the sale of raw milk at farmers’ markets as long as customers are informed and understand the possible implications of consuming an unpasteurized product.

Our proposal increases the amount of milk that can be sold by Tier 2 producers from 280 gallons per week to 350 gallons. We change the language on the sign to be less dire and decrease the required size. We also change the testing requirements back to what they were before the AAFM made the policy changes last fall. Additionally, we will no longer require a farm visit by the customer prior to buying milk at a farmers’ market for biosecurity reasons.

What should be made very clear is that we want unpasteurized, raw milk to be safe. Many Vermonters consume raw milk and feel that there are health benefits to drinking it. There is potential risk; however, we need to put that in perspective. Statistically, more people become sick with a food-borne illness from eating deli meat and leafy greens. What is very important is that consumers are educated about the risk, know their producer, and handle the milk properly.

Another bill we have not had time to do due diligence on this year is H.236, an act relating to the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides that have been used since the early 1990s and are preferred because they are less directly harmful to mammals than their predecessors. They are systemic so they are absorbed in every cell of a plant. They work on the central nervous system of an insect and result in paralysis and death.

One alarming aspect of “neonics”, as we call them for short, is that they are sprayed prophylactically on many flowering plants that are brought into Vermont for sale. Even plants that are marketed as good for honeybees are sprayed, which causes their pollen to contain neonics.

It is used in coatings on nearly all of the corn seed planted in Vermont. This introduces tons of the chemical into the environment every year where it is persistent, remaining in the soil and water. If treated, even the guttation droplets, or plant “sweat” that we might confuse with dew, have neonics in them that insects drink.

While neonics are very effective at killing unwanted insects, they also have a devastating effect on pollinators, including honeybees. Without pollinators our food supply will be greatly reduced.
Other species are being affected as well. Birds that eat insects have less to eat. Cynthia Palmer of the American Bird Conservancy testified that one coated corn kernel will kill a songbird and one tenth that amount will impair reproduction. Some scientists compare this situation to that of DDT in times past.

Dr. Charles Benbrook of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University testified that we could get rid of two-thirds of the problem with some simple changes including cutting one-half to two-thirds of the seed treatments. Mary Ann and Jim Frazier, a wife and husband team at Penn State, testified that it is not just the active ingredients that are dangerous and that there is little information on or regulation of these other ingredients.

The good news is that some of the big box stores have removed neonics, are labeling, have publicly committed to eliminating them, or are trying to source plants that have not been sprayed with neonics. Check with your stores before you buy. If you want to avoid purchasing neonics, look for, among others, imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, nithiazine, thiacloprid, and thiamethoxam on the label or ask the sales clerk.

Several towns in Minnesota and Oregon have banned the use of neonics and there is a two-year moratorium on their use in Europe. While Prof. Dave Goulson of Sussex University in the UK does not favor banning them, he does opine that there is no study indicating that they increase yield and, therefore, should be used more judiciously. To learn more, there is an informative video at www.linktv.org.