2.4.2022 – The Forest Future Strategic Roadmap and Neonicotinoids
This week, our committee spent time on several topics including the Forest Future Strategic Roadmap (FFSR) and neonicotinoid (neonics) pesticides. We also had the opportunity to visit with representatives from out federal delegation to discuss what’s happening with agriculture policy in Washington, DC.
What is interesting about the proposed FFSR is that Maine did something similar starting in 2015. At that time, Maine was faced with the closure of five low-grade mills, with another one closing in 2016. Those closures represented the elimination of markets for two million tons of pulpwood and two million tons of biomass. That, clearly, had a devastating effect on the livelihoods of many loggers, foresters, truckers, and all of the auxiliary businesses in Maine.
They took the bull by the horns and created the Forest Opportunities Roadmap (FOR) Maine, the goal of which was to recreate the forest products industry. They were able to convene meetings with United States Senators, Departments, and Agencies and obtain a $500,000 grant to help with their effort. The FOR Maine process has been carried out in three distinct phases.
A representative from the Northern Forest Center, Joe Short, strongly supported the effort in Vermont to create the FFSR. He stressed that people involved in the forest products industry need to have a leadership role in the process and that it should dovetail with other work that has been and is being done. Efforts should be targeted and scaled to Vermont, which is considerably smaller than Maine. Joe feels that the proposed $250,000 investment could leverage much more money.
In previous testimony, Chris Brooks, the owner of the Vermont Pellet Company, said that Vermont could use another five to six pellet mills. He’s located in North Clarendon, sells out every year, and has a well-thought-out strategy to have additional mills spaced appropriately so our forest resources aren’t over harvested. He believes there needs to be a thirty-mile radius around each mill to assure supply and keep transportation to a minimum.
All of these witnesses strongly supported passage of the FFSR Bill (H.566). Currently, we are incorporating some of the suggestions that other witnesses have made with the intention of making the bill stronger and to alleviate any concerns.
We have also taken a lot of testimony on H.626, an act relating to the sale, use, or application of neonicotinoid pesticides. The challenging thing about this topic is that there are very divergent perspectives and a need for research done by entities without a vested interest. Companies that produce the pesticides have made improvements in the seed coatings, so they are more durable, but there is concern that they contain ingredients that aren’t necessary for the conditions in Vermont. Why put stuff in the soil when it doesn’t even help?
At the same time, there are beekeepers who blame their colony losses on neonicotinoid pesticides, but in some cases, when their hives are tested, there is little or no trace of neonics. There is also the belief that the seed coatings break down in the soil and migrate in groundwater to flowering plants where the pollen can be picked up by pollinators. However, when studies have been done and testing is performed on cornfields in Vermont, no evidence of neonics is found in the field, on the edge of field, or in the surrounding ditches.
We do know that there are several stressors on our pollinator population including a loss of habitat due to development, climate change, parasite pressure, and pesticides.
In Vermont, we have taken some significant steps to reduce the use of neonics. We banned the sale, possession, and use of products containing neonics for household purposes. We also created a Seed Panel that will review any genetically engineered seeds before they can be used in Vermont. We are the only state that has such an entity, and it was created in response to Dicamba-related incidents. Primarily in the south and midwest, events occurred where, due to certain weather condition, in particular heat, Dicamba volatilized, drifted to neighboring crops that were not Dicamba resistant, and killed them. In many cases, these crops were annuals, but the fear is that in Vermont, Dicamba could wipe out more permanent assets such as orchards, vineyards, and hardwood stands.
As we continue our investigation of H.626, it would be helpful to have additional studies done to determine what’s actually happening. Are neonics really responsible for weakening and/or killing beehives? Are they migrating to other plants and hence, their pollen, or are they breaking down in the soil as we’re told they are? Are there ways to use less treated seed? Several years ago, we required that any seed company selling treated seed would also have to make untreated seed available. The challenge there is that untreated seed needs to be ordered in September before the planting season. Is there a way we could implement something similar to what Ontario did, requiring farmers to make a case for the need to use treated seed?
One of my favorite witnesses is Dr. Heather Darby who is an agronomist for UVM Extension. She said that she is looking to raise funds to do research that might answer some of the questions mentioned above. She also said that in order to determine if a farmer needs to use treated seed, they need to do scouting, which can be difficult given the varied conditions from field to field. At this point, UVM Extension does not have the staff to do that kind of work.
Doing more unbiased research will be necessary in order to make informed decisions in the future regarding the use of neonicotinoid pesticides and the sooner we do it, the better.