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Bill to ban pesticides toxic to bees takes a key step forward in the Vermont House

A crowd of people stand in the Statehouse, holding signs that say Protect Our Pollinators. Some wear beekeeper suits. A man in a black suit stands at the podium at the right.
Abagael Giles
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Vermont Public
Rep. Robin Chestnut-Tangerman of Middletown Springs sponsored H.706. He said he was inspired to do so from his own time growing up on a farm and working as a licensed pesticide applicator at Vermont orchards, as well as beekeeping. He and other lawmakers spoke Tuesday in support of the bill and were joined by beekeepers.

A bill that would ban most uses of neonicotinoid pesticides in Vermont took a key step forward Wednesday, when it was passed by a vote of 8-2 out of the House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resiliency and Forestry.

The insecticides are used widely on corn and soybean seeds nationwide and in Vermont. They’re also sprayed on apple trees and fruits and vegetables and have been linked to pollinator decline.

Although widely hailed by the industry as a necessity, a 2020 study from Cornell University found the seeds were more costly and yielded no substantial benefit in terms of crop yields for corn and soybeans.

And since the pesticides are notoriously toxic for bees and other pollinators, lawmakers and some environmental groups in the state, as well as beekeepers and many farmers, say it’s time to do away with them.

Beekeepers came to the Statehouse on Tuesday to urge members of the House agriculture committee to vote in favor of advancing the bill.

Bianca Braman, a commercial beekeeper from Swanton who is vice president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, said Tuesday that at 35% to 85%, Vermont’s rates of colony loss for honey bees are untenable.

“We have some of the best honey in the world right here in Vermont, and that is a gift,” Braman said. “We must honor that and cherish it and our critically important insect population.”

Andrew Munkres, a commercial beekeeper from Cornwall, said he’s tired of seeing catastrophic hive loss every year, and that pesticides are a part of the problem.

“This isn’t just a nice thing," Munkres said. "This bill is really critical for the survival of the beekeeping industry in Vermont.”

The timeline

Ontario, Quebec and the European Union have already adopted bans on coated seeds, and New York state is in the process of phasing them out by 2029.

The House bill sets Vermont on a similar timeline, something the Champlain Valley Farmers Coalition and NOFA-VT say they support.

“We have some of the best honey in the world right here in Vermont, and that is a gift."
Biance Braman, commercial beekeeper

Under the bill, the prophylactic treatment of corn and soybean seeds with neonicotinoids would be banned in Vermont, starting in 2029.

That timeline parallels a recent law passed in New York state, which also banned spraying the pesticides for ornamental plants.

Vermont’s bill goes further than New York state’s law, proposing a ban on outdoor spraying for most leafy vegetables and ornamental plants in 2025. It also bans spraying neonicotinoids on turf fields, like golf courses.

The House committee carved out an exemption for fruit growers, who testified they usually apply the pesticides once or twice a year and need them to combat apple maggot.

The bill would restrict orchards from spraying with neonicotinoids when fruit trees are flowering and pollinators are more likely to be impacted directly. Orchardists said this provision worked for them.

A closeup photo of an apple tree in spring
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
A tiny apple at Green Mountain Orchards in Putney in May 2023.

Still, Casey Darrow, who runs Green Mountain Orchards in Putney, told lawmakers Tuesday that fruit growers need these pesticides.

“Unchecked apple maggot would be catastrophic to our crop,” he said.

In a followup conversation, Erin Robinson, the orchardist at Scott Farm in Dummerston, echoed Darrow's concerns.

Peter Hirschfeld
/
VPR File
Rodney Graham of Williamstown, photographed in 2017.

An outright ban?

Williamstown Republican Rodney Graham pushed Tuesday for a last minute amendment that would change the bill to be an outright ban on spraying neonicotinoids. He said that would do the most to protect pollinators in the state.

Graham, who is a dairy farmer, said this special provision for fruit growers was unfair to conventional dairy farmers, who use the vast majority of treated seeds. He expressed concern that lawmakers assumed orchards were following integrated pest management practices more closely than dairy farms are.

“I learned a long time ago that bad policy is worse than no policy. And we are targeting one sector,” Graham said.

Rep. Mike Rice, a Democrat from Dorset, said the carve-out represents a good and fair step toward restricting all neonicotinoids in the future.

“This is not targeting any one group of farmers, or one approach,” Rice said. “This is targeting pesticides, a group of pesticides.”

Rep. Henry Pearl, a Democrat from Danville, said that farmers who grow corn in the state are feeling targeted by the current bill. Pearl, who is also a dairy farmer, said he would be more comfortable with the bill if it proposed an across-the-board ban on neonics.

“This bill has sound safeguards in place to ensure that our agricultural community will not experience financial hardship.”
Rep. Heather Suprenant, D-Barnard

“With things like water quality, we saw that there was a lot of regulation put on [dairy] farms,” he said. “And I’m not saying we didn’t need to do that. But it’s fallen on a particular subset of the population to do that work, and it’s been a real burden.”

Vice Chair Heather Suprenant, also a dairy farmer and a Democrat from Barnard, said she feels the bill gives farmers time to plan ahead.

“Of course we owe it to the farmers who were using treated seeds to provide a just transition away from dependency on harmful chemicals,” she said, speaking at the press conference earlier Tuesday. “This bill has sound safeguards in place to ensure that our agricultural community will not experience financial hardship.”

Pearl and Graham both voted against advancing H.706 on Wednesday, with every other committee member supporting the bill.

Off-ramps

Under the proposed legislation, the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets could issue an exemption order in the event a farmer or sector encounters a major economic threat like a pest outbreak, and the pesticides are deemed necessary to prevent devastating crop loss.

Additionally, the bill calls for the agency to develop best management practices for neonicotinoids in Vermont.

Gov. Phil Scott opposes the bill, saying lawmakers should stick with the Agricultural Innovation Board’s recommendation from January that the state continue to do more research into neonicotinoids and try to get farmers to use less of them through outreach, rather than implementing a ban.

“I learned a long time ago that bad policy is worse than no policy. And we are targeting one sector.”
Rep. Rodney Graham, R-Williamstown

The board was established in 2021 to reduce pesticide use in the state, and Scott said their report — which lawmakers called for — is independent and sound.

Jason Maulucci, Scott’s chief of staff, said the proposed bill “needs work” and reiterated the administration’s support for the board’s recommendations of more studies and work to increase pollinator habitat.

But thelargest summary of the literature on neonicotinoids is pretty conclusive, according to Cornell entomologist Scott McArt, whose lab looked at more than 5,000 studies comparing fields planted with treated and untreated soybean and corn seeds and found that in most cases, treated seeds didn’t appear to increase crop yields.

His study did, however, find that the pesticides are very harmful to bees.

Close-up of a beekeeper collecting honey on a honeycomb of bees.
Frazao Studio Latino/Getty Images
/
E+
Close-up of a beekeeper collecting honey on a honeycomb of bees.

For fruit, McArt found substantial evidence that there was a benefit to treating with neonicotinoids, usually by spraying.

And while many of those trials were conducted in New York or eastern Canada, the administration says it wants to see more Vermont-specific trials like one that is underway at University of Vermont Extension.

The bill goes next to the House floor.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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Updated: March 4, 2024 at 9:57 AM EST
The original version of this story included testimony that a representative of Scott Farm orchards in Dummerston shared with lawmakers, saying there are viable options other than neonicotinoids for apple maggot. The orchard followed up with Vermont Public to say he misspoke in testimony, and that they echo Casey Darrow's comments that the pesticides are necessary.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.

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