Syngenta seeks new uses for neonicotinoid pesticide

If approved, Syngenta’s bid to use thiamethoxam as a foliar application on crops such as alfalfa, corn and wheat would significantly boost the allowable residue tolerances of the pesticide

Syngenta hopes to boost allowable residues of the neonicotinoid pesticide, thiamethoxam, in various crops, including alfalfa, buckwheat, corn, wheat and vegetable legumes, a recent announcement of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says.

Syngenta Crop Protection LLC of Greensboro, South Carolina, is among several current petitioners to the EPA seeking new tolerances for residues, amendments or exemptions to existing rules for 20 separate, pesticide products. Announced Sept. 5 on the U.S. Federal Register online, the petitions remain open for public comment until Oct. 6. EPA officials will consider public input before evaluating the applications, a statement posted to the registry says.

Syngenta Canada corporate affairs head Chris Davison confirmed this week by email that an application for new foliar uses of thiamethoxam is before Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency.

New residue tolerances are required to support use of the chemical as a foliar spray, he said in a brief, emailed statement responding to a Better Farminginquiry. Currently, the chemical is used mainly as seed treatment.

“Foliar applications would be used to address insect pest challenges later in the crop production cycle that are not controlled by seed treatments,” he said.

“Different tolerance levels of residues are required to support the use of thiamethoxam as a foliar spray compared to its use as a seed treatment,” Davison said.

The move comes as both Canadian and U.S. governments re-evaluate neonicotinoid pesticide use because of potential harm to pollinating insects, particularly honeybees. In late June, U.S. President Barack Obama authorized Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to create a national Pollinator Health Strategy by early 2015 in response to widespread concern.

Syngenta’s recent FDA application seeks to increase significantly tolerances for thiamethoxam residue in forage, hay, grain, leaves and stalks of crops. In alfalfa forage, the company seeks a new limit of 10 parts per million, up from the current level of 0.05 ppm.

Thiamethoxam is a widely-used, neonicotinoid compound registered for use on numerous agricultural crops in many countries of the world, including Canada. It is used mainly to control foliar feeding insects, a Food and Agriculture Organization research summary says. Thiamethoxam is an active ingredient in several products, including Syngenta’s Helix and Cruiser seed treatments.

As a general policy, Health Canada does not comment on pending applications.

Dust from neonicotinoid pesticides has been implicated in bee kill incidents in North America and Europe. Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency has begun re-evaluation of all uses of neonicotinoid insecticides in cooperation with the EPA, notice of new bee protection rules issued last September said.

A class action lawsuit launched on behalf of bee keepers in early September in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice claims damages exceeding $400 million from two defendant chemical makers: Bayer Inc. and Syngenta. Plaintiffs in the case have issued a statement of claim and will seek to prove in court that the neonicotinoid chemicals, clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid, “have been shown to adversely impact the survival, growth and health of bees.”

Begun in the name of two bee keepers, Sun Parlor Honey Ltd. and Munro Honey, the lawsuit now has 30 claimants with signed retainers, Paula Lombardi of the Windsor law firm Siskinds LLP said Monday. The firm has received communication from “many more” potential claimants, Lombardi said.

Syngenta’s Davison says the lawsuit’s claims are “without merit and will be vigorously defended.”

The company cites scientific evidence, “including field studies conducted in Canada,” that “clearly shows that bees and other pollinators can coexist safely with modern agricultural technologies, including neonicotinoids,” Davison said. Twenty-year, bee population data, he said, shows a 30 per cent increase in the number of hives in Canada. Other potential factors affecting bee health include: the parasitic Varroa mite, diseases, bacteria, viruses, loss of habitat, poor nutrition, management practices, weather conditions, and a lack of genetic diversity in bee populations, Davison said.

Even so, current Health Canada regulations issued for the 2014 growing year followed reports of neonicotinoid-related mortality among pollinating insects in corn-growing regions of Ontario and Quebec. The new rules require safer, seed-planting practices and dust-reducing lubricants in seeding equipment.

Meanwhile, Ontario Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal has announced plans to clamp down on “the widespread, indiscriminate use of neonicotinoid-based pesticides.” In early July, Leal outlined plans to consult with farmers, industry and environmental groups on new regulatory options, including a licensing system.

Bryan Bossin, Leal’s press secretary, said earlier this month that the government plans to hold consultations in the “coming months” with all relevant stakeholders on what will work best for them and how to move forward.

Ontario Beekeepers Association president Dan Davidson said the Syngenta move spells more bad news for bees already suffering from mites, disease and severe winter kill. He’s puzzled by Syngenta’s shift to a neonicotinoid spray.

“Their argument was always that seed treatments are safer than foliar sprays,” Davidson said adding he doesn’t accept the argument about systemic insecticide safety. “But now they’re trying to use it as a foliar spray anyway which is really bad for bee keepers.”

“The residual on a systemic is very long,” Davidson said, referring to data showing persistence in water of the chemical as long as three years. Commonly-used, non-neonicotinoid chemicals function with much less, environmental persistence, he said.

“It’s astounding and revealing that Syngenta would make such a request at a time when researchers are discovering the sub-lethal effects that near-infinitesimal exposure to neonics can have on honey bees and wild pollinators,” Davidson said. “This proves their commitment to bee safety is merely lip-service. We hope the EPA will refuse this application and that this request never comes to Canada,” he said.

Sierra Club of Canada executive director John Bennett questioned the timing of Syngenta’s move. He urged both U.S. and Canadian governments to hold off on changes.

“It would be irresponsible of the U.S. or Canadian governments to allow Syngenta to increase the amount of pesticide . . . while both countries are claiming to be re-evaluating neonicotinoids,” Bennett said in an email exchange.

“At the very least they should be taking the precautionary move of not licensing any more of these pesticides until the questions regarding toxicity . . . are resolved,” Bennett said.

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