Wednesday, April 8, 2020

House subcommittee holds hearing about federal coordination on pollinator health

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The House Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research held a hearing on pollinator health on Wednesday as part of a growing governmental effort to protect pollinators.

“Pollinators are responsible for nearly one in every three bites of food you eat. In addition, they contribute nearly $15 billion to the nation’s economy,” said James Jones, the assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, in testimony.

Robert Johansson, the acting chief economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, had good news to offer on that front: America is producing more honey with a rising bee colony population.

Approximately 100,000 new bee colonies were formed in 2014 and the average honey produced per colony increased by an average of 14 percent. The loss rate for colonies was reported to be 34 percent in 2014, down from 45 percent the year previous. While improved, Johansson cautioned that this rate was still very high and an extreme risk for bee farmers.

The issue of how to protect honey bee colonies from dying has become a major topic of debate. Both the USDA and EPA are partners in the Obama Administration’s Pollinator Health Task Force, which was formed last year to create a federal strategy to promote the health of honey bees. The EPA also is studying the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on honey bee health. 

Adding to the discussion on Wednesday was a new survey with funding from the USDA showing beekeepers across the United States lost 42.1 percent of their colonies from April 2014 to April 2015. Winter loss rates improved slightly over the year, while summer losses were more severe. More than 6,000 commercial and small-scale beekeepers responded to the survey. 

Although Wednesday's testimony was to highlight the strong collaborative relationship between the EPA and USDA, there has been friction between the two agencies recently.

Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) said in opening remarks that the EPA recently released a study on the benefits of neonic seed treatments on soybeans with with little to no input from USDA. The USDA chief economist sent a letter to EPA disagreeing with its assessment.

Johansson cited other instances where the USDA and EPA worked together. “Many of EPA’s actions affect rural and agricultural communities. Through cooperation on environmental issues affecting agriculture and rural communities, the EPA and the USDA have developed strong working relationships,” Johansson said.

As for more specific collaborations, Jones provided an example: “In March 2015, the EPA registered a new miticide, oxalic acid, to combat the devastating effects of the varroa mite on honey bee colonies.” The mite is the most destructive force in the beekeeping industry. 

“Oxalic acid was already registered for this use in Canada and Europe. Recognizing beekeepers’ need for additional registered tools to combat the varroa mite in U.S. honey bee colonies, the EPA collaborated with the USDA on the registration,” Jones said.

The EPA will be working with the USDA to find more solutions to the pollinator problems and other areas of concern moving forward.

“We will also continue to work with the USDA and other federal and state agencies to protect pollinators while also ensuring that growers can meet their pest control needs in order to maintain a diverse ecosystem and provide for a healthy and abundant United States food supply,” Jones said.