Tag: Soybean

The slippery food slope.

The second in this three-part focus on food; both for us and our dogs!

A republication, within the terms of The Conversation site, of an article that was originally published on June 26th, 2018.


Why it’s time to curb widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides

By  Associate Professor of Entomology and Extension Specialist, Pennsylvania State University

Planting season for corn and soybeans across the U.S. corn belt is drawing to a close. As they plant, farmers are participating in what is likely to be one of the largest deployments of insecticides in United States history.

Almost every field corn seed planted this year in the United States – approximately 90 million acres’ worth – will be coated with neonicotinoid insecticides, the most widely used class of insecticides in the world. The same is true for seeds in about half of U.S. soybeans – roughly 45 million acres and nearly all cotton – about 14 million acres. In total, by my estimate, these insecticides will be used across at least 150 million acres of cropland, an area about the size the Texas.

Neonicotinoids are very good at killing insects. In many cases they require only parts per billion, equivalent to a few drops of insecticide in a swimming pool of water.

In recent years, concerns have been raised about the influence of neonicotinoids on bee populations. As an applied insect ecologist and extension specialist who works with farmers on pest control, I believe the focus on bees has obscured larger concerns. In my view, U.S. farmers are using these pesticides far more heavily than necessary, with potential negative impacts on ecosystems that are poorly understood.

Pesticides on seeds 

Most neonicotinoids in the United States are used to coat field crop seeds. Their role is to protect against a relatively small suite of secondary insect pests – that is, not the main pests that tend to cause yield loss. National companies or seed suppliers apply these coatings, so that when farmers buy seed, they just have to plant it.

The percentage of corn and soybean acreage planted with neonicotinoid seed coatings has increased dramatically since 2004. By 2011, over 90 percent of field corn and 40 percent of soybeans planted were treated with a neonicotinoid. Between 2011 and 2014, the area treated crept toward 100 percent for corn and 50 percent for soybeans. And the mass of neonicotinoids deployed in each crop doubled, indicating that seed suppliers applied about twice as much insecticide per seed. Unfortunately, many farmers are unaware of what is coated on their seeds, while others like the peace of mind that comes from an apparently better protected seed.

Unlike most insecticides, neonicotinoids are water soluble. This means that when a seedling grows from a treated seed, its roots can absorb some of the insecticide that coated the seed. This can protect the seedling for a limited time from insects. But only a small fraction of the insecticide applied to seeds is actually taken up by seedlings. For example, corn seedlings only take up about 2 percent, and it only persists in the plant for two to three weeks. The critical question is where the rest goes.

Clothianidin is a neonicotinoid used almost exclusively as a coating on seed corn. Maps from USGS.

Pervading the environment

Because neonicotinoids are water soluble, the leftover insecticide not taken up by plants can easily wash into nearby waterways. Neonicotinoids from seed coatings are now routinely found polluting streams and rivers around the country.

Here it is likely that they are poisoning and killing off some of the aquatic insects that are vital food sources for fishes, birds and other wildlife. In the Netherlands, neonicotinoids in surface waters have been associated with widespread declines in insectivorous bird populations – a sign that concentrations of these insecticides are having strong effects on food webs.

Neonicotinoids also can strongly influence pest and predator populations in crop fields. My lab’s research has revealed that use of coated seeds can indirectly reduce crop yield by poisoning insect predators that usually kill slugs, which are important crop pests in mid-Atlantic corn and soybeans fields.

More broadly, planting coated seeds generally decreases populations of insect predators in crop fields by 15 to 20 percent. These predatory insects can eat insect pests, such as black cutworm and armyworm, that can reduce yield. Crop fields with fewer resident predators are more vulnerable to pest infestations.

Slugs, shown here on a soybean plant, are unaffected by neonicotinoids, but can transmit the insecticides to beetles that are important slug predators. Nick Sloff/Penn State University, CC BY-ND

An exaggerated need

Neonicotinoid advocates point to reports – often funded by industry – which argue that these products provide value to field crop agriculture and farmers. However, these sources typically assume that insecticides of some type are needed on every acre of corn and soybeans. Therefore, their value calculations rest on comparing neonicotinoid seed coatings to the cost of other available insecticides.

History shows that this assumption is clearly faulty. In the decade before neonicotinoid seed coatings entered the market, only about 35 percent of U.S. corn acres and 5 percent of soybean acres were treated with insecticides. In other words, pest populations did not cause economically significant harm very often.

Importantly, the pest complex attacking corn today is more or less the same as it was in the 1990s. This suggests that it is not necessary to treat hundreds of millions of acres of crops with neonicotinoid seed coatings.

Neonicotinoids can harm birds via multiple pathways, sometimes in very small quantities.

From overkill to moderation

Should the United States follow the European Union’s lead and pass a broad ban on neonicotinoids? In my view, action this drastic is not necessary. Neonicotinoids provide good value in controlling critical pest species, particularly in vegetable and fruit production. However, their use on field crops needs to be reined in.

In the Canadian province of Ontario, growers can only use neonicotinoid seed treatments on 20 percent of their acres. This seems like a good start, but does not accommodate farmers’ needs very well.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a control strategy based on using pesticides only when they are economically justified, offers valuable guidelines. It was introduced in the late 1950s in response to issues stemming from overuse of insecticides, including environmental damage and pest populations that had evolved resistance. Field-crop growers have a good history of using IPM, but current use of neonicotinoids ignores pest risk and conflicts with this approach.

To implement IPM in field crops with neonicotinoids, seed companies need to acknowledge that the current approach is overkill and poses serious environmental hazards. Extension entomologists will then need to provide growers with unbiased information on strengths and limitations of neonicotinoids, and help farmers identify crop acres that will benefit from their use. Finally, the agricultural industry needs to eliminate practices that encourage unnecessary use of seed coatings, such as bundling together various seed-based pest management products, and provide more uncoated seeds in their catalogs.

These steps could end the ongoing escalation of neonicotinoid use and change the goal from “wherever possible” to “just enough.”


It’s enough to make one give up!!

Earth Policy Institute

An organisation that deserves wide support.

Read it!

My copy of Lester Brown’s book World on the Edge arrived on Tuesday and already it’s opening my eyes big time.  I do recommend that you think about purchasing the book, or you may download the entire book for free – details here.

Regular visitors to Learning from Dogs will remember that there was mention in a recent Post, Group Human Insanity about Lester Brown’s new book.  I have subscribed to regular updates from the EPI and recently received the following; it’s worth reproducing in full, with the permission of the EPI.

Restoring Food Security for All
Takes Action on Many Fronts


By Lester R. Brown

Today there are three sources of growing demand for food: population growth; rising affluence and the associated jump in meat, milk, and egg consumption; and the use of grain to produce fuel for cars.

Population growth is as old as agriculture itself. But the world is now adding close to 80 million people per year. Even worse, the overwhelming majority of these people are being added in countries where cropland is scarce, soils are eroding, and irrigation wells are going dry.

Even as we are multiplying in number, some 3 billion of us are trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. As incomes rise, annual grain consumption per person climbs from less than 400 pounds, as in India today, to roughly 1,600 pounds, as among those living high on the food chain in the United States, where diets tend to be heavy with meat and dairy products.

When the United States attempted to reduce its oil insecurity by converting grain into ethanol, the growth in world grain demand, traditionally around 20 million tons per year, suddenly jumped to over 50 million tons in 2007. Roughly 119 million tons of the 2009 U.S. grain harvest of 416 million tons went to ethanol distilleries, an amount that exceeds the grain harvests of Canada and Australia combined. This massive ethanol distillery investment in the United States launched an epic competition between cars and people for grain.

On the supply side of the food equation, several trends are making it more difficult to expand production rapidly enough to keep up with demand. These include soil erosion, aquifer depletion, more frequent crop-shrinking heat waves, melting ice sheets, melting mountain glaciers, and the diversion of irrigation water to cities.

Farmers are also losing cropland to nonfarm uses. Cars compete with people not only for the grain supply but also for the cropland itself. The United States, for example, has paved an area for cars larger than the state of Georgia. Every five cars added to the U.S. fleet means another acre of land will be paved over—the equivalent of a football field.

The implications for China of this relationship between cars and cropland are startling. In 2009, for the first time, more cars were sold in China than in the United States. If China were to reach the U.S. ownership rate of three cars for every four people, it would have over a billion cars, more than the entire world has today. The land that would have to be paved to accommodate these cars would be two thirds the area China currently has in rice.

This pressure on cropland worldwide is running up against increased demand for soybeans, which are the key to expanding the production of meat, milk, and eggs. Adding soybean meal to livestock and poultry feed sharply boosts the efficiency with which grain is converted into animal protein. This is why world soybean use climbed from 17 million tons in 1950 to 252 million tons in 2010, a 15-fold jump.

Nowhere is the soaring demand for soybeans more evident than in China, where the crop originated. As recently as 1995, China produced 14 million tons of soybeans and consumed 14 million tons. In 2010, it still produced 14 million tons, but it consumed a staggering 64 million tons. In fact, over half of the world’s soybean exports now go to China.

Demand is climbing, but since scientists have failed to increase yields rapidly, the world gets more soybeans largely by planting more soybeans. The soybean is devouring land in the United States, Brazil, and Argentina, which together account for four fifths of world soybean production and 90 percent of exports.

Ensuring future food security was once the exclusive responsibility of the ministry of agriculture, but this is changing. The minister of agriculture alone, no matter how competent, can no longer be expected to secure food supplies. Indeed, efforts by the minister of health and family planning to lower human fertility may have a greater effect on future food security than efforts in the ministry of agriculture to raise land fertility.

Similarly, if ministries of energy cannot quickly cut carbon emissions, the world will face crop-shrinking heat waves that can massively and unpredictably reduce harvests. Saving the mountain glaciers whose ice melt irrigates much of the cropland in China and India during the dry season is the responsibility of the ministry of energy, not solely the ministry of agriculture.

If the ministries of forestry and agriculture cannot work together to restore tree cover and reduce floods and soil erosion, grain harvests will shrink not only in smaller countries like Haiti and Mongolia, as they are doing, but also in larger countries, such as Russia and Argentina—both wheat exporters.

And where water shortages restrict food output, it will be up to ministries of water resources to do everything possible to raise national water productivity. With water, as with energy, the principal potential now is in increasing efficiency, not expanding supply.

In a world where cropland is scarce and becoming more so, decisions made in ministries of transportation on whether to develop land-consuming, auto-centered transport systems or more-diversified systems that are much less land-intensive will directly affect world food security.

In the end, it is up to ministries of finance to reallocate resources in a way that recognizes the new threats to security posed by agriculture’s deteriorating natural support systems, continuing population growth, human-driven climate change, and spreading water shortages. Since many ministries of government are involved, it is the head of state who must redefine security.

At the international level, we need to address the threat posed by growing climate volatility and the associated rise in food price volatility. The tripling of wheat, rice, corn, and soybean prices between 2007 and 2008 put enormous stresses on governments and low-income consumers. This price volatility also affects producers, since price uncertainty discourages investment by farmers.

In this unstable situation, a new mechanism to stabilize world grain prices is needed—in effect, a World Food Bank (WFB). This body would establish a support price and a ceiling price for wheat, rice, and corn. The WFB would buy grain when prices fell to the support level and return it to the market when prices reached the ceiling level, thus moderating price fluctuations in a way that would benefit both consumers and producers.

One simple way to improve food security is for the United States to eliminate the fuel ethanol subsidy and abolish the mandates that are driving the conversion of grain into fuel. This would help stabilize grain prices and buy some time in which to reverse the environmental and demographic trends that are undermining our future. It would also help relax the political tensions over food security that have emerged within importing countries.

And finally, we all have a role to play as individuals. Whether we decide to bike, bus, or drive to work will affect carbon emissions, climate change, and food security. The size of the car we drive to the supermarket and its effect on climate may indirectly affect the size of the bill at the supermarket checkout counter. At the family level, we need to hold the line at two children. And if we are living high on the food chain, we can eat less grain-intensive livestock products, improving our health while helping to stabilize climate. Food security is something in which we all have a stake—and a responsibility.

#   #   #

Adapted from Chapter 5, “The Emerging Politics of Food Scarcity” and Chapter 12, “Feeding Eight Billion” in Lester R. Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse
(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), available online at www.earth-policy.org/books/wote

Additional data and information sources at www.earth-policy.org

Feel free to pass this information along to friends, family members, and colleagues!

Not much I can add to that!

UPDATE:  Just a few hours after completing the Post, I saw this on the BBC News website.

The global consumption of fish has hit a record high, reaching an average of 17kg per person, a UN report has shown.

Fisheries and aquaculture supplied the world with about 145m tonnes in 2009, providing about 16% of the population’s animal protein intake.

The findings published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also stressed that the status of global fish stocks had not improved.

It said that about 32% were overexploited, depleted or recovering.

“That there has been no improvement in the status of stocks is a matter of great concern,” said Richard Grainger, one of the report’s authors and FAO senior fish expert.

Full article on the BBC is here.