While many fruit growers dream of a day when Maximum Residue Levels become standardized around the world, based on the best scientific data available, Dr. Mark Whalon’s reaction would be, “Dream on.”
The European Union has led the way in making it tougher for its growers to use pesticides and for growers elsewhere to sell fruit into Europe, Whalon said. But the United States is in for much the same trend the next few years, at least.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is under enormous pressure, much of it the result of problems with bees.
“EPA administrators can’t get out of the office without being nailed about bees,” Whalon said. “Bee supporters are camping out in Washington, D.C. I’ve never seen a better lobbying effort on the agency. Decisions are being driven by bee issues and the power of the bee lobby in Washington. If this effort is supported by good data—so much the better.”
Members of Congress, too, are being assailed as ordinary citizens have rallied to the bee cause. Honeybees are, in a sense, an invasive species brought to North America from Europe.
They have been cultivated by beekeepers, who keep them as domesticated livestock. Yet people think of them as if they were a national utility company providing an abundance of environmental services—especially pollination.
The desire to protect and conserve bees is becoming “institutionalized,” Whalon said.
Federal and state highway rights-of-way are increasingly being left unsprayed—even for invasive species weed control.
Many roadsides are being planted to wildflowers—not for beautification but for bees. There are as yet no “bee crossing” signs to protect them from traffic.
Whalon, who spoke to growers at the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable, and Farm Market Expo in Grand Rapids, Michigan, fears we may be entering a “precautionary” period in which EPA’s “sound science” decisions are hedged by immense public opinion to protect bees. “No doubt, some of this is warranted, yet we still want such policy changes to be science-led,” he said.
For some time, neonicotinoid insecticides have been among the suspects in a complex of forces that have led to colony collapse disorder (CCD), which has taken annual hive losses to an unsustainable 30 percent in some areas.
But no one has been able to scientifically substantiate a cause-effect relationship between insecticides and CCD in the field, Whalon said.
Increasingly, it is believed that fungicides—not normally considered a threat to bees—act as synergists, increasing the toxicity of insecticides by a factor of 2,000 times or more.
Pesticides in combination
That has turned EPA’s attention from evaluating pesticides on a one-by-one basis to considering pesticides in combination, Whalon said, and it will likely affect apples a lot and cherries somewhat.
“I don’t think neonicotinoids will be banned,” Whalon said, “but they won’t be as broadly used in the future. This issue is far from being over.”
Evaluating mixtures—products used in combinations—will be much more complicated than evaluating products one by one, Whalon said.
He envisions a future dominated by these concerns. “We’re going to be at this for awhile,” he said.
Moreover, he added, “We’re not going to be happy until everybody has everybody else’s pests.” China alone has 21 insects, such as brown marmorated stinkbug or spotted wing drosophila, that could attack cherries in the United States if they were introduced.
And Whalon thinks it is inevitable we will have to deal with more invasive species.
“A million containers come into Miami, Florida, annually, and Miami is only the eleventh largest port in the U.S.,” he said. “USDA-APHIS is responsible for inspecting for invasive species in 7.4 million tons of cargo, not to mention that Miami is one of the largest passenger ports in the world.
“Most containers are packed with hundreds of cardboard boxes. Cardboard containers are ideal pupating places for insects and other pests of all kinds. How effective could an army of inspectors be in the face of such commerce? No wonder we have to deal with invasive species!”
Invasive species, coming into new environments free of their natural enemies, often spread like wildfire and disrupt American growers’ efforts to use integrated pest management. Growers have to spray more, and, often, they have to spray close to harvest.
And, at the same time, people are increasingly concerned about pesticide residues—so pesticide regulations are increasingly restrictive.
“This situation is not unlike what happened as Europeans flooded into North America in previous centuries bringing new human diseases, invasive plants, and a host of new pests. Many of the U.S.’s agricultural pests were imported from Europe, and a similar thing is happening right now, but the pests are from Asia.” •