Story by Josephine Marcotty
Photos and videos by Renée Jones Schneider
Farmers such as Gary Schrad (above) have few alternatives to the high-tech seeds that produce big crops — but also create an unhealthy landscape for bees.
ALBERT LEA, MINN. | Third in an occasional series
ALBERT LEA, MIN.
Mac Ehrhardt often feels like he has one leg on either side of a barbed-wire fence. On one side stand the farmers who have bought seed from his family’s business for three generations, and who rely religiously on insecticides to protect their crops. On the other is Ehrhardt’s growing conviction that southern Minnesota’s two-tone landscape of corn and soybeans has become a barren and toxic place for a crucial player in the nation’s food system — the honeybee.
Ehrhardt’s uncomfortable position at the Albert Lea Seed Company reflects the powerful role that farmers could play in the plight of the bees. Though they represent just 2 percent of Minnesota’s population, farmers control half its land. And their embrace of the monocultures and pesticides that form the basis of modern industrial agriculture has been implicated in the decline of bees and pollinators.
But as long as farmers sit at the receiving end of an agri-chemical pipeline that fuels the nation’s rural economy, not much is likely to change, he said.
“No one in this county is getting paid for growing bee-friendly corn,” Ehrhardt said. Organic farmers might ask why use chemicals at all, he added. “I respect that. But out here in farm country, that’s not what’s happening.”
Farmer Keith Johnson has changed how he manages his land. He has become a beekeeper and has created habitat for them among his crops. (1:40)
Gary Schrad, one of Ehrhardt’s customers, doesn’t farm the way his father did.
There was a time when farmers would plant their crop, harvest it, and then save some of the seed — or buy a neighbor’s seed — to plant the next year’s crop.
Now, most of the seed Schrad plants on his 3,500 acres comes from corporations such as Monsanto and Syngenta, and they come embedded with astonishing genetics. One type of gene makes corn, soybeans and other crops immune to herbicides, including Roundup, allowing farmers to kill weeds at will without killing their crops.
As a result, weeds and wildflowers between the rows are sparse — leaving bees and butterflies to forage in the smaller and smaller areas that are left: state parks, wildlife preserves and tiny strips of land between the roads and the fields.
Another added gene makes the plants themselves poisonous to insects such as corn rootworm that are the bane of farmers. But it’s not foolproof against all insects.
The solution? A new class of insecticides first introduced in 1994 that is relatively harmless to people and animals — neonicotinoids. Now added routinely as a coating on seeds, neonicotinoids provide additional insurance against soil pests. And, like the genetic traits, they become an intrinsic part of the plant as it grows.
“It started in 2002,” said Chuck Benbrook, a professor who studies sustainable agricultural systems at Washington University. “By 2006 neonicotinoids had cornered the market.”
Today, genetically engineered crops dominate agriculture, and two-thirds of the world’s cropland gets a regular dose of neonicotinoids, including 90 percent of corn and 60 percent of soybean acres.
Farmers, in fact, have few options. The highly complex seed combinations they find on the market are determined by interwoven licensing agreements among the companies that control the seeds and the companies that make the insecticides. Often they are one and the same. Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, for example, sell seeds and make some of the most widely used neonicotinoids. Monsanto, the world’s leading seed company, uses Bayer’s neonicotinoids on some of its leading genetically altered seeds. Monsanto also developed the herbicide Roundup, as well as the genetically engineered seeds that are resistant to it.
When it comes time to buy seed, farmers have a dwindling number of alternatives. Three corporations control more than half of the world’s commercial seed market, and the top 10 control three-fourths, according to ETC Group, a Canadian nonprofit that tracks emerging technologies. No one can grow patented GMO seeds. If they do, they’ll get sued by the companies that own the patents.
“The fact is, the vast majority of farmers have no choice but to go down the road that the seed biotech industry has decided to lead them,” Benbrook said. “The farmer can’t go to the dealer and say: ‘Hold the Roundup Ready gene.’ It’s not the pickle on the hamburger.”
It’s a costly package deal. A standard bag of GMO seed corn, pre-treated with insecticides and fungicides, enough to plant two acres, costs $300 or more, compared with about $120 for non-engineered corn that usually comes with the same kinds of coatings. That price alone provides a powerful incentive for farmers not to question the relatively low-cost neonicotinoid coating that comes with it.
“The more you can protect the seed, the better the return for that acre of ground,” Schrad said. “Every seed company and every farmer has an interest in that.”
In August, the dense green and gold fields of southern Minnesota roll to the horizon in all directions, a testament to the success of all that biotechnology. The GMO seeds Schrad uses have greatly reduced the need for older insecticides, some of them extremely toxic to people.
But the amount of land devoted to those seeds has exploded. Today in Minnesota, about 24,000 square miles — a third of the state — are devoted to growing either corn or soybeans.
“This,” Schrad said, waving an arm toward a wall of his head-high corn, “is what … Minnesota is.”
Bees, however, may be paying a high price of their own. In 2006, beekeepers began raising the alarm about neonicotinoids after they noticed a sudden and inexplicable collapse of their colonies over winter. They used to lose 10 percent of their bees in the cold months, building their hives back up in the summer. But in the past decade, average hive losses of 25 to 30 percent have become routine, a decline that many say is not sustainable for their businesses — or the $15 billion a year in food crops that rely on bees for pollination.
Bayer CropScience, Monsanto and others in agribusiness say there is no evidence that neonicotinoids are to blame. Years of research went into their development, including studies that concluded the low doses bees encounter as they forage for pollen and nectar are insufficient to kill them, company officials say.
Yet beekeepers, environmentalists and many scientists are raising a growing chorus of disagreement. Dozens of studies have now found that low doses of neonicotinoids may not kill bees outright, but can cripple their highly sophisticated navigational and communication skills, and hamper a queen’s reproduction. Scientists have also warned that crops take up only a small portion of the insecticide, leaving the rest behind in the soil. If the toxins spread from fields into streams and wetlands, they may ripple through the food system from aquatic insects to birds and beyond, they say.
Some scientists and environmental groups now compare the history of neonicotinoids to that of DDT, the long-banned insecticide that decimated bird populations and inspired Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring.”
Like DDT, “It really appeared to be a boon,” said University of Minnesota entomologist Ian MacRae. “But now we are beginning to see the downside of its chemistry.”
Still, entomologists and federal regulators say, the case against agricultural neonicotinoids is not settled. Bees encounter many different insecticides while foraging in millions of flowers and blooming trees. They live for only six weeks and are very efficient at detoxifying their colonies, bee scientists say. They also suffer from invasive parasites, a multitude of diseases and a less nutritious diet of sugar water and artificial pollen that many commercial beekeepers have adopted because of the Midwest’s increasingly flowerless landscape.
In short, though some scientists are beginning to link neonicotinoids to the decline of the honeybee, the precise effect remains elusive.
“We know half the equation,” said Bob Koch, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota who works with farmers. “We don’t know what bees are experiencing from crops.”
And that’s precisely what chemical companies and many farmers say they want to know.
“These insecticides go through a tremendous amount of regulation and testing before they are put on the market,” Schrad said. “That same type of testing and research should be done before they are pulled from the market.”
What is clear is that neonicotinoids are overused, say agricultural entomologists.
Many of the soil pests they were designed to thwart show up in less than 5 percent of the fields, said Bruce Potter, a pest management specialist at the University of Minnesota's extension service.
Yet farmers are reluctant to assume even that small risk because it’s often impossible to predict where and when soil insects will appear. And once that seed is in the ground, Schrad said, it’s too late to do anything about it.
“I would not plant corn that was not pre-treated,” he said. “Nor soybeans.”
Still, Potter and other agronomists fear that overuse of the chemicals will inevitably cause the bugs to evolve and become immune — as they have to many of the insecticides that preceded them. Already, the highly adaptable Colorado potato beetle is showing signs of resistance to the neonicotinoids that are also routinely used on potatoes, said MacRae.
It would be a pity, entomologists say, if farmers had to give up a tool that is highly effective in some critical situations, and far less toxic to people than the ones that would replace it.
“That would be bad for everyone,” Potter said.
Ag researchers are also starting to question whether neonicotinoids really improve yields as much their makers promise. Bayer’s internal studies show that without neonicotinoids, farmers nationwide could lose as much as half their productivity per acre, according to Dave Fischer, Bayer’s head of bee health.
But independent researchers are producing different results. Several soybean studies have found that neonicotinoids made little or no difference in farmers’ yields, or that it’s cheaper for farmers to spray only when they encounter pests, said Jonathan Lundgren, a scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research station in Brookings, S.D. “Seed treatments do not improve yields” in soybeans, he said.
Now he’s finding the same thing in his own studies with treated sunflower seeds, Lundgren said.
Responding to alarms raised by environmentalists and scientists, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing neonicotinoids and their effect on pollinators. But the review won’t be finished for several years. In the meantime, some farmers are beginning to get the message about bees.
Earlier this summer, Keith Johnson was cutting a field on his farm near Center City, Minn. Johnson, who farms 2,400 acres of corn, soybeans and hay, suddenly saw the bright purple clover scattered through the tall grass as something other than livestock feed.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that is great pollinator habitat,’ ” he said, laughing. “Me, a farmer, thinking about pollinator habitat.”
His mind-set began to shift during a motorcycle trip in Nebraska. He was riding through an ocean of corn he described as “a food desert.” Then he saw on Twitter that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was offering prairie grass and flower seeds to farmers to plant as forage for bees and butterflies. He decided to look into it. That turned out to be much harder than he thought, but it brought him to a beginning beekeeping class at the University of Minnesota.
Now he’s managing three of his own hives, and is looking at his land in a completely different way.
With the help of the USDA’s conservation experts, Johnson has converted a gully that runs through his fields into a waterway planted with native plants and flowers — prime forage for his bees.
Johnson already chooses to buy soybeans without neonicotinoids; it doesn’t make sense to buy something he doesn’t need, he said. For now, he has no plans to plant untreated corn, but he does want answers on how effective the chemicals are, and how to use them better, he said.
Schrad, too, is looking at his land in a new way. On a warm afternoon in August, he eyed the strip between his cornfield and the dirt road that runs by it. He had just mowed the strip, which had been thick with goldenrod and other late summer wildflowers.
“Do bees use that this late in the year?” he asked. “I could wait a little longer before I cut that.”
But from where Ehrhardt sits, between the big seed companies and the end of their pipeline at the farm, it appears that the fate of pollinators in rural Minnesota will come down to demand, markets and economics. He sells all kinds of seeds to all kinds of farmers. He’s keenly aware of the market for organics and the rising demand among farmers for non-GMO seeds — the fastest growing segment of his seed business. Both of those types of crops command a considerably higher price at the local elevator than the genetically engineered crops.
Farmers, he said, would be happy to grow bee-friendly corn. “But there have to be consumers willing to pay for that.”