Pollinator Initiatives Offer Opportunities For Growers, Retailers, Regelbrugge Says

This year’s Greenhouse Grower Top 100 Growers Breakfast discussion, sponsored by BASF, centered around the same theme presented inGreenhouse Grower’s Top 100 Growers report in May, highlighting growers’ evolving crop protection challenges, including increased regulation of not only neonicotinoids but attention toward other crop protection agents, as well. Based on some of the developments in crop protection in recent years, in the advent of the pollinator health issue and consumer dissent about neonicotinoids and pesticides in general, Greenhouse Grower asked its panel of speakers to share new trends in crop protection worldwide, how growers are adapting with biocontrols and integrated pest management and what the future holds for growers and the supply chain, from the breeder all the way down to the end consumer.

Craig Regelbrugge, AmericanHort’s senior vice president for industry advocacy and research, was one of the speakers. Regelbrugge discussed where things stand on the regulatory front, as well as the Grow Wise, Bee Smart initiative and how growers can get involved with the pollinator health effort.


A transcript of Regelbrugge’s presentation appears below, or you can watch this video:


I’m going to talk a little bit about the environment that we are facing and the horticulture industry’s response. I want to emphasize that that response has been a collaborative effort with all of the major organizations and endowments involved for all the right reasons. Think about where we were a year ago. We had a lot of emotion and a lot of very hostile media coverage, wondering if agriculture and horticulture were killing the bees. Part of that backdrop, too, had been a very terrible situation in a Target parking lot in Wilsonville, Ore., where a very unwise landscape application of a neonic to actively flowering linden trees that were being actively visited by scores of bumblebees caused the death of about 50,000 bumblebees. This happened right down the street from Xerces Society, an organization that is very much engaged in protecting invertebrates generally and pollinators specifically. So worst-case scenario, and whether we like it or not, horticulture found itself in the center of this debate.

The good news is, if you look at the comprehensive heath assessments that have been done around the world in places like the U.S. and the USDA’s counterparts in the United Kingdom, England and Australia, what you find is that these health assessments do not point to neonics specifically or pesticides generally as the primary cause of threats to bee health. And bear in mind that we’re not just talking about honeybees here, we’re also talking about various native bees, butterflies and other types of pollinators. But honeybees have very much been at the center of the public consciousness in this debate. So again the good news is, that these reports show what we have come to understand, which is that there are many threats to bee health, and of those, the single biggest threat would be parasites and the diseases that they vector. But beekeeping practices themselves — commercial beekeeping practices, loss of habitat and forage, various other problems — all contribute to the threats that bees face. This is the varroa mite, and beekeepers will tell you this is the single biggest threat that they deal with in terms of maintaining the health of honeybees. But how we organize our landscapes, both on the ag side, as well as on the urban side, contributes to the loss of forage and habitat. A major issue for us is a common ground concern, where we can work with partners that may have a different ultimate agenda in some respects than we do.

We often say denial is not a river in Egypt, and denial is not a strategy for managing this issue. We need to understand that pesticides and insecticides are designed to kill insects, and bees and these other pollinators are largely insects, so we have to be mindful of how our practices intersect with the concerns.

This is unlike many issues we deal with because normally, we’re dealing with Congress, and we’re dealing with the Federal agencies. In this case, Congress is pretty much a non-event. We’re not going to see much coming out of Congress on this issue, other than maybe some additional research funding resources. EPA is not our primary problem at this point. EPA so far has seemed to walk a line of commitment to following the science, which is a commitment we share. If the science informs us in ways that are negative, we’re going to have to adjust accordingly. But EPA has so far followed the science, largely.

We’re also concerned about states and municipalities, other more local jurisdictions doing hasty things when driven by activists, and these hasty decisions can be very disruptive. We’ve won a few and lost a few of those local battles. And of course, the ultimate worry for us is that the mass retail formats decide our fate, in an emotion-driven way, rather than in a science-driven way. Some might be cynical and figure that has already happened. I’m not convinced that the story is over on that, when you look at the responses so far of the mass retail formats. We’re finding ourselves working with these mass retail formats in different ways. Bear in mind that AmericanHort is the largest independent garden center organization in North America, and the independents — there is a risk that they get a little bit confused. Why are we talking to Home Depot? We don’t want Home Depot or Lowe’s or any of the mass formats to decide our fate. We want to be able to manage our fate.

It’s No Longer Just About Neonics

The evolving federal picture is very brief. In the EPA, there’s a lot going on there. First of all, we do have concerns as EPA is developing and implementing additional label guidance. We do have concerns that that label guidance could be over-reaching at times. So we’re watching that closely. There is an active comment period right now on an EPA proposal to mitigate bee exposure to acutely toxic pesticides. Now this is mostly in the context of protecting bees for commercial pollination services, so we’re not convinced that the impact on our industry of this particular activity is going to be terribly great. However, it is a very complicated proposal, and all of the stakeholders are working through it. We joined with the American Honey Producers Association to seek further time, because we wanted to make sure we fully understand what the implications may be and how we work with this. And then more broadly than EPA, I think everyone knows there is a national strategy that has been backed by the White House. It involves many departments and federal agencies. The Deparment of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, and many agencies – EPA is certainly involved.

But the important point I want to make for you today is this is no longer about just neonics. This is a much broader situation. We are looking at new data requirements coming from EPA over a period of the next several years, for 76 insecticide, fungicide and herbicide active ingredients. It’s going to be very complicated because in many cases, EPA is concerned about synergistic effects. And so a concern for us is to the data development requirements, to recreate the minor use crisis that we dealt with some years ago where we were concerned that manufacturers didn’t have enough reason to invest in the data required to sustain uses in our market. And we may see that play out on a more pollinator specific scale here. So again, this is not longer just about neonics.

Research Is In Progress, Thanks To Stewardship Initiative

To give you an overview of the horticulture industry bee and pollinator stewardship initiative, we have three primary goals.
1. To fund and direct research, because we know we need better answers. We have some information and we need better information and we’re going to need to follow the science.
2. We are working to implement a stewardship program for growers, for plant producers, so that when the question can be reframed from yes or no to here is what we’re doing.
3. We’re looking to partner with groups that share a common interest in expanding forage and habitat. There are a lot of mainstream groups working in this space, who are willing to set aside policy debates where we may have disagreements to work together toward improving habitat and forage.

On the research front, HRI (Horticultural Research Initiative) has funded five projects worth a total of about $160,100 to be precise. And the American Floral Endowment (AFE) has funded a sixth project down at Clemson University, which Terril Nell is in the detains on. We’ve also managed to leverage one of the projects we funded, for $25,000, which allowed us to show to USDA that we had skin in the game. We also leveraged an additional $272,000 through a Farm Bill grant, and all of us are working together — many of you in this room — to advise a consortium or collaboration of scientists who are seeking a Specialty Crop Research Initiative grant. We get this, it could be as big as $7 million in research funding over a period of years. And this project, if it gets funded, may be our key to providing EPA the data that EPA needs, and not falling through the cracks as an industry.

I’m not going to go into detail on the five HRI funded projects. The lead one is Richard Coles at the Connecticut Ag Experiment Station, who is a tremendous researcher in this space, but the common denominator of these projects are looking at residues and toxicity; bee attractiveness of things we grow; looking at the opportunity side — how we can be part of the solution; looking at best management practices and fates of substrate applied neonics.

We Need To Keep Our Industry’s Options Open

It’s worth noting that from a trade association perspective, it is not our role to judge how growers should grow. It is our role to help keep options available, as many options as possible, as much room on the playing field, and frankly to not have groups like Friends of the Earth deciding our fate. Because I think we can all agree their agenda is quite dissimilar many times from our own agenda. There are many other mainstream groups that we can work with.

So we’ve worked with a public relations company to figure out what do we call this initiative. And the Grow Wise, Bee Smart initiative is what emerged from a careful consideration of different options.

We have developed a technical framework. We’ve had a taskforce of industry members, including some folks in this room, and some science advisors, who have taken a look at the basic framework. There are two parts to it. One is plant production compontnet, which when you think about it, we’re looking at two factors. On one hand, how is the plant ultimately going to be used and is it bee attractive? And on the other hand, the timing considerations that need to come into play with respect to the use of certain crop protection agents. So the technical framework has been developed, and this has been a very interesting conversation. There have been growers who have pushed back against this in conversation initially.

But as we have networked with a bigger circle of players, this has remained a very important thing. What we mean by that is a participating grower will either on their own property have to support a habitat and forage for pollinators, or they’ll have to financially support, in a reasonable way, third parties who are engaged in that process in their local area. The habitat and forage component, I think there are lots of good opportunities for synergies here with respect to what we’ve heard about beneficials.

Building Pollinator Gardens A Tremendous Opportunity For Horticulture

In terms of partnerships, on a broader level of improving the habitat and forage situation for pollinators in a mega way, AmericanHort was one of eight founding partners that came together to form the National Pollinator Garden Network. Those eight partners existed sort of across the conservation and gardening space, both public and private. So they include on one end of the spectrum the national wildlife federation, and on the other end of the spectrum, two trade associations — AmericanHort and the American Seed Trade Association, as well as many of the other gardening, like the American Public Gardens Assocation. These groups together, who have been joined by many others — the network is now in excess of 30 groups — we’ve launched the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. So that has an aspirational and hopefully real goal of seeing individuals take action to establish 1 million new pollinator gardens between now and the end of 2016. On any scale — a window box, a patio planter, a little bit of a shrub border or a true landscape scale habitat. And from our perspective, this is a tremendous opportunity for our industry to be the source for plants and for expertise.

I’ve been talking a lot with the network of consultants who advise our independent garden retail establishments — our members in that space — and I asked one of them, what do members most need? The answer was they need role models — the folks who are doing it well, we need to uphold those examples. It just so happened I was out at Greenscape Gardens in St. Louis, Missouri, and Greenscape is an example of a company that wholly embraces the opportunity — and it’s not just about monarchs. But their sales of pollinator supporting native plants rose by more than 100 percent this particular spring, even though they had a very bad spring. so it’s a very exciting opportunity at retail to pull customers in and get them hooked, and to get younger customers, who are viewing what we do differently than older customers, involved and hooked.

There are two ways you can help in this process. One of them is by financially supporting the work. There are a handful of industry leaders who have supported this work and made it possible — the research agenda and the stewardship program and the partnerships — and some of those have provided five and even six figures of funding to help move this initiative forward. I would strongly suggest if you are interested in knowing more, talk to me, talk to someone like Gary Mangum at Bell Nursery who has been a major leader in this effort. And then secondly, embrace the goals and the message of the Grow Wise, Bee smart program, as we roll it out, as well as the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. We see this as a tremendous opportunity for the industry, and one that is very timely as we attempt to retain a position where growers have the most possible options with respect to how they can safely and wisely manage pests. And our industry can claim its rightful place as part of the solution in this space.