If agriculture wants to reduce the potential impact neonicotinoid seed treatments have on pollinators, it has to modify standard vacuum planters. That’s the verdict from Ridgetown College, University of Guelph researcher Dr. Art Schaafsma.
“Essentially, what we’ve created is a drift problem,” says Schaafsma, who spoke publicly about his research for the first time last week at an Ontario Seed Growers’ Association field day.
Schaafsma and his research team began studying neonic drift in 2013. He says the root of the neonic issue can be traced to vacuum-style planters used for planting corn and soybeans. “95% of what’s happening in the environment in the corn ecosystem, we can trace back to what’s escaping from vacuum planters. It’s not coming from the soil, it’s not coming from the seed after it’s been planted. It’s coming from the back of the planter. That’s why I say we have a drift problem.
In recent years, neonics have been targeted by some beekeepers, environmental activists and the Ontario government as a contributing factor to bee mortality, despite little scientific evidence and actual documented increases in bee populations.
Schaafsma explains that the main culprit is dust that gets picked up by the intake of the vacuum system, which is designed to keep the seed on the seed plate. “That dust is acting like sandblasting material and it’s taking insecticide off the seed coat and then that gets exhausted out the back of the planter,” says Schaafsma. “Planters that have the high volume, high negative pressure units are the worst contributors.”
Schaafsma issues a challenge to planter manufacturers to look at their designs and develop modifications that could remedy the problem. “We really need to take another look at how we operate these planters. We have to either clean the air going into the intake to the seed metering units or we have to combine it with cleaning the air coming out so that the exhaust is clean.”
Schaafsma says manufacturers have several options to clean the air before it passes through the seed metering system, including pre and post filters, as well as cyclone machines that can clean the exhaust air. A key challenge facing Ontario farmers is whether manufacturers, who typically sell their planters in farming regions around the world, would be willing to modify designs to meet the needs of a small market like Ontario where neonic regulations have been imposed. It would be easier for manufacturers to justify the modifications if farmers in the US Corn Belt faced the same restrictions, but that’s not the case.
Bayer’s Fluency Agent is designed to coat the seed and keep the seed treatment in place. It was highly effective in lab tests, Schaafsma says, but researchers had not identified the impact dust in vacuum planters would have on the seed coating.
Products like Fluency Agent are certainly part of the solution, says Schaafsma. “Another approach is to look at the polymers the seed is being treated with, the things that make the fungicides and insecticides stick to the seed. We can change those and make them a little more abrasion resistant, or you could put on an after-coat, like a nail polish coating over the seed so that it becomes abrasion resistant.”
Schaafsma notes that once the ‘fugitive’ neonic material leaves the planter it settles on the soil surface and can be redistributed via wind, water and erosion.
“That’s where the contamination is coming from off-site. The important thing is to make sure the treatment that is placed on the seed stays on the seed,” says Scaafsma noting that research shows seed-placed neonic seed treatment can move only up to 30 centimetres in the soil. “If you put it in the soil, it stays put. If you put it on the soil, it moves.”
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