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Costs and benefits need to be assessed in weighing bans on glyphosate and neonicotinoids

The continuing debates over whether the herbicide glyphosate or the insecticide class of neonicotinoids (neonics) could—or should—remain available for farmers and other users has been met with simplistic arguments both pro and con:
 
Pro ban: These chemicals are dangerous, they may kill bees and other life and shouldn’t be allowed near our food.
Anti ban: These chemicals have been widely tested and proved safe, they are absolutely necessary and if removed from the market will force farmers to use more ineffective and dangerous chemicals.
 
Which answer is more accurate? Neither, because farmers take a far more nuanced approach to pest management than these two divergent views suggest.
 
The French government on August 31 banned five neonics from use in agriculture. The decision was hailed by beekeepers and environmentalists, and protested by farmers. Meanwhile, glyphosate is guaranteed to be up for debate at least in the European community, as temporary approvals mean another round of debates and suspense.
 
Do farmers answer their pesticide questions with the popular “either or” or “if not this, then that” approach? Not really, farmers and agriculture experts say.
 
The decision on which pesticide to use, at which time, and on what crop, and to stave off which pest, is not taken lightly. There are regulations, on the nation and state level, on how this is done. In California, farmers by law can take recommendations about commercial pesticide applications only from licensed pest control advisors, and it’s their job to keep up on current regulations and products.
 
Jeffrey Bradshaw, assistant professor of entomology at the University of Nebraska, detailed what goes through a farmer’s head when making these decisions:
 
Decisions on pesticide use (or any input cost for that matter) are strongly governed by crop value and risk perception. Generally speaking, the higher the crop value, the more risk averse the crop manager is going to be. The sensitivity to this risk is going to vary somewhat by crop, cropping system, and environment. Now seed-applied insecticides (and transgenic technologies) challenge this equation somewhat because the cost of the treatment (in the case of transgenic seed or treated and packaged seed) is masked and their use is not based on scouting decisions, but field history. Depending on the pest, field history may or may not be the most accurate “action threshold” on which to base next year’s seed purchase.
 
What would happen if a seed treatment like the neonics were banned? Bradshaw said:
 
Were seed treatments banned from use would it result in more toxic insecticide use? It’s hard to say. Upon the adoption of transgenic traits and seed treatments, many growers abandoned their in-furrow insecticide application equipment to the scrap yard. Current crop values generally do not seem to be supportive for growers to invest more in equipment. Though if there were an EPA ban on seed-applied insecticides, some growers would drag out their old granular applicator boxes or look into tank-mixing an insecticide with their lay-by fertilizer application.
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