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New York Enacts First-in-the-Nation Neonic Ban on Crop Seed Coatings

From the Summer 2024 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

In its most recent legislative session, New York State enacted the first significant regulation of neonicotinoid pesticide use in agriculture in the nation. The Birds and Bees Protection Act, signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, bans the use of neonic-treated seeds (the primary agricultural use of this pesticide) for corn, soybeans, and wheat starting in 2029, with exemptions granted for farmers who face significant pressure from pests. The act also prohibits the use of neonics for outdoor ornamental plants and turfs (such as lawns, gardens, and golf courses) beginning in 2027.

“Neonics harm nearly every part of our environment,” says Dan Raichel, director of the Pollinators and Pesticides Initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC helped lead a coalition of environmental groups that included the American Bird Conservancy and National Audubon Society in advocating for the act. “With the sensible and flexible model outlined in the bill, New York will now lead the country in common-sense regulation to curb the use of these dangerous pesticides. We hope other states, and EPA, take note.”

Neonic-treated seeds are used on the vast majority of corn planted in the United States, and significant percentages of soybeans and other crops. Due to a federal regulatory loophole called the “treated article exemption,” the use of neonic seed coatings is not monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet neonics are documented to impact wildlife, such as pollinating insects. Studies have also shown direct effects from neonics on birds—such as interfering with metabolism, migration, and reproduction—as well as indirect effects, such as depressing insect prey populations. A study conducted by scientists from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Auburn University found evidence of accelerated declines of grassland birds in counties with high neonicotinoid use (see Neonic Nation, Living Bird Summer 2022).

The New York neonics ban made it through the legislature and to the governor’s desk for signature after a series of negotiations and compromises with agricultural interests in the state. Deadlines for implementing the bans were moved back in order to give farmers and landscapers more time to find alternatives for pest control. An exemption process was also added, so that farmers can obtain a prescription from an agronomist if there is a documented need for neonics. In Quebec, a similar prescription process dropped the use of neonic-treated seeds from 100% of corn planting and about 50% of soybeans to 2% and 1%, respectively.

“The Birds and Bees Protection Act was a major legislative achievement that bans neonics, which not only kill birds and bees but harm other animals like fish and deer as well, and are known to pollute our water and negatively impact our health. Like any major legislative achievement, it is the product of different groups and interests coming together and compromising in order to achieve a shared goal,” says New York State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal of Manhattan, who was a lead author on the bill. “Throughout the negotiations for this bill, we maintained regular contact with groups from the agricultural industry like the Soybean Growers Association.

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“We also worked closely with environmental advocates from groups like Clean + Healthy and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as researchers from Cornell University who conducted crucial research proving that our regulations would not hurt farmers and would actually benefit them by slowing down the pollinator decline that has been hurting their crop output.”

According to Hardy Kern, director of government relations for the Pesticides and Birds campaign at the American Bird Conservancy, the process for passing a neonics ban in New York provides a model for other governments.

“This law is the type of legislative change North American birds desperately needed,” says Kern. “Not only will the Birds and Bees Protection Act reduce threats from neonics in New York, it has laid the groundwork for other states to pass similar laws and is hard proof for federal regulators that neonic-treated-seed action is not only needed, it is wanted.”

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