Environment

Predicting the imminent arrival of an insect species that could devastate Kentucky’s sweet sorghum crops, the state Department of Agriculture has declared an emergency and is letting the commonwealth’s farmers apply a new pesticide to protect their plants. But the pesticide in question — Sivanto Prime — has come under fire from environmental groups who say it hasn’t been properly vetted and could pose a risk to bees and other animals.

When a company wants to market a new kind of pesticide, it has to be registered with the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA doesn’t just register the pesticide itself, but issues an individual registration for different crops and insects the pesticide is authorized to treat. But when an issue crops up where a state would like to allow a usage that hasn’t been approved, it has to seek an emergency exemption.

“So this emergency exemption is basically a way for the EPA and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture to get this product available for use for this specific crop site that hasn’t gone through the full process with the EPA yet,” said David Wayne, director of the Division of Environmental Services at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

And that’s why the state is allowing farmers to use Sivanto Prime on sweet sorghum crops to protect them from a pest called the sugarcane aphid. The Department of Agriculture says sweet sorghum is big business in the commonwealth — it estimates there are about 1,500 acres of the crop in Kentucky, bringing farmers up to $12 million a year.

And Wayne said last year’s sugarcane aphid infestation ruined most of those crops.

“Some of [the farmers] had 100 percent loss related to an infestation from the sugarcane aphid,” Wayne said. “And others were able to perform a harvest, but they reported that the sweet sorghum syrup they made from the sorghum was bitter and was not palatable and they could not sell it.”

That’s why Wayne said it was necessary for the state to seek the emergency exemption for Sivanto.

But Lori Ann Burd of the Center for Biological Diversity says both the pesticide and the process are problematic.

Could Sivanto Affect Honeybees?

Sivanto Prime is a class of pesticide called butenolides, which are similar to neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids have been suspected of contributing to maladies like colony collapse disorder, which has killed millions of honeybee hives in the U.S. and Europe.

Sivanto Prime’s manufacturer, Bayer, says the pesticide is safe, and the EPA has approved its use for specific crops and pests around the country.

But Burd and the Center for Biological Diversity have a pending lawsuit against the EPA over the agency’s approval of the pesticide. The Center for Food Safety and Defenders of Wildlife are also involved in the suit.

“Our main concern is that the EPA approved this pesticide, recognized that it has unacceptable impacts on threatened and endangered species, recognized that it’s extremely toxic to some pollinators and did not do the required Endangered Species Act analysis to make sure that it doesn’t potentially drive any of these species to extinction,” she said.

The organization’s Notice of Intent to Sue says the EPA recognized the potential harm the pesticide would cause to pollinators as well as endangered amphibians, reptiles and freshwater invertebrates.

David Wayne said he’s confident using Sivanto Prime on Kentucky’s sweet sorghum crops is safe for the environment.

“Products are labeled through the EPA approval process to minimize those impacts to the environment, human health, and as part of the environment would be pollinators as well,” he said. “So if there were an unacceptable risk to pollinators, then this emergency exemption would never have been granted.

University of Kentucky Extension Entomologist Ric Bessin agrees.

“Assuming people are going to apply it exactly according to the label, which is how they should apply it, I think the risk to pollinators is relatively low,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s without risk, but I think the risk is low.”

That’s because sweet sorghum, even though it flowers, generally isn’t attractive to pollinators. It’s usually pollinated by the wind.

“Therefore the risk is lower, because you’re just not drawing in the actively foraging pollinators that you would with other flowering plants,” Bessin said.

‘A back door’ to pesticide approval

But Burd said there are still concerns about how Sivanto Prime could affect other species, like organisms that might live in nearby streams and be affected by runoff. She said the very process of seeking an emergency exemption is also problematic.

“[The emergency exemption is] really kind of a back door to having the full process of pesticide registration and the full analysis that would entail,” she said.

This will be the third year sugarcane aphids have been in Kentucky. Burd said at some point, it comes down to the definition of “emergency.”

“There are some instances undoubtedly of true emergencies, but it’s also pretty common for EPA to say ‘we expect this emergency to happen again next year,’” she said. “A lot of these things are pretty foreseeable.”

Rather than relying on pesticides year after year, Burd said strategies like crop rotation are also sometimes effective in controlling pests.

“Unfortunately, we do have a lot of farmers kind of stuck on a pesticide treadmill, where they keep getting into these situations where they’re growing monocultures, not improving their soil and getting these pest problems where they don’t know where to turn to,” she said.

The sugarcane aphid is a recent arrival in Kentucky, and UK entomologist Ric Bessin said he’s not sure how long it will plague the commonwealth’s sweet sorghum crops. But he said often, after a few years, other species adapt to prey on the pests, thus naturally controlling the population.

“Our natural enemies of other pests begin to adapt to this new invasive pest, things like lady beetles and lacewings and parasitoid wasps will begin to adapt to this new prey item for them, and that helps keep their numbers down,” he said.

Or, scientists will develop sugarcane aphid resistant strains of sweet sorghum. But in the meantime — pending resolution of Burd and the Center for Biological Diversity’s lawsuit — Kentucky’s sweet sorghum farmers may be applying Sivanto Prime this summer.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Assignment Editor.