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What’s all that coloured stuff on our grass seeds?

What’s all that coloured stuff on our grass seeds?


As this is honey week, it may be interesting to try to understand what chemicals are coating our grass seeds, in this age when we are all too aware of the vulnerability of bees.

Because today when you walk into the nursery or your local farm co-op to buy lawn seed, or ryegrass for re-seeding, you often can buy seeds that are a funny colour.

Legislation in Europe and the US requires the active ingredient or common chemical name to be declared on the label of these coated seed products, known as plant protection products. However surprisingly, in New Zealand the insecticides and fungicides that coat these grasses go undeclared.

Is it just me or do you also think this is a pretty stunning act, when most of us understand how essential bees are to our lives? From dairy farmers wanting bees to pollinate their clover to orchards needing the little fellas. To beekeepers plonking their hives in the middle of a grassed paddock to gardeners liking a bit of a hum around – bees are irreplaceable and essential.

Without accurate information how can we be knowledgeable?

So unfortunately, due to this abrogation in labelling (commonly known as a loophole), most people don’t know when they buy the pretty coloured grass seed, that it is often coated in a pesticide from the neonicotinoid family – the main family of insect neurotoxins that concern scientists all over the world researching colony collapse.

The neonicotinoids that coat these products have been found, in study after non-industry study, to be dangerous to bees. To be toxic. In so many ways, much of which involves reducing their immune systems so that they can’t fight environmental challenges like disease and infections.

I have no idea what the fungicides are. But we know they also contribute to the deadly cocktail. In a recent study healthy bees exposed to a particular fungicide were twice as likely to come down with Nosema, an industry wide infection causing massive bee deaths. Another fungicide in the study resulted in a three-fold increase in deaths. No-one’s holding the gun but we’re all unwittingly buying the bullets. I did write to the Minister for environmental legislation, but I don’t think he really cared. New Zealand law does not require plant protection product (PPP) manufacturers and retailers to declare the active ingredient on the label of seed treated products.

I was compelled to investigate coated grass seeds after talking to my dairy farmer brother-in-law, who was also surprised he couldn’t read the label. Because he’d like to know. Which is when I got curious, loving as I do, the little buzzy bee.

It sort of turned me into a lobbyist, dare I say. One of THOSE. Because I felt the injustice of it all.

I walked into Palmers today for a squizz at the selection – not a single uncoated bare-naked grass seed available. Every Tui Superstrike and Yates grass seed product coloured and coated, but not labelled with the active chemical. Tui tends to coat with insecticides and Yates with fungicides.

Both work to reduce the bee’s immune system which can contribute to colony collapse.

A quick look on the Tui website and I see that Superstrike protects the seed from Grass Grub, Argentine Stem Weevil and Black Beetle. After a bit of insistent investigation I believe that Superstrike Grass contains clothianidin, Superstrike Brassica is coated with thiamethoxam, and Ultrastrike Brassica is coated with imidacloprid

I believe Yates Super Shield for farming contains imidacloprid, but I don’t know what the fungicide is that coats their lawn product range.

Agricote advised me they will now be treating ryegrass seeds with ‘AgriOne’. Bayer advised me ‘AgriOne’ is the clothianidin systemic pesticide, (which will possibly be a change from imidacloprid). I also believe PG Wrightson commenced treating seeds last year with clothianidin.


Specialty Seeds advised me that they treat their own seeds with Poncho. They prefer Poncho as ‘it doesn’t just bring up the black beetle, it brings up the larvae too’. Poncho contains clothianidin, one of the more lethal neonicotinoids. Many companies move from imidacloprid to clothianidin.

Seed treatment is used more in the North Island than the South. Retailers estimate between 40-60% of all ryegrass seed sold on the North Island is treated. One PG Wrightson agronomist reckoned over 90%. The South Island has lower sales due to the cooler climate and lesser pest species.


Most farmers don’t want to depend on synthetic nitrogen, they would prefer to have a good blend of clovers balancing their grasses. But flowering plants need bees to pollinate them and continue the seed cycle. Strikingly, retailers also sell clover as a coated seed, which kind of bamboozles me. The very plant that farmers want, year after year to reseed, contains poison neurotoxically lethal to bees. But of course the farmers probably aren’t aware of this.

The seed companies don’t want to label with the correct chemical, however senior NZ Bayer employees I spoke with expressed opinion that the active ingredient/s should be disclosed on the label (and that this would probably be the company line as well). To quote ‘farmers were perfectly entitled to know what was on the seed they buy’.

And the seed companies unfortunately want it to be secret, to keep it as ‘commercial confidentiality’ to enable them to compete better for market share. This is an excuse lobbed all around the pesticide industry for decades – and it is the very reason the full stronger formula of Roundup has never been tested by any of the world authorities (EPA, WHO and EU), only the weaker less damaging active chemical. But I digress. Ultimately, where is the transparency?

The retailers love clothianidin because it is the ‘stronger version’. And as a result New Zealand seed companies distribute clothianidin treated ryegrass across all retail sectors. As a result it is also persistent and mobile in the environment, (it hangs around in your soil) and has the potential to accumulate in the top 15 cm of soil. (Wikipedia) And then be taken up by your flowering nitrogenous plants.

When bees cruise around in the morning and sip that lovely guttation fluid resting on the grasses – they sip the pesticide. It’s as simple as that.

There are other unintended consequences of this corporate transparency (because that is what it is). At the local market my friend watched a lovely lady engaging children in making grass-head people – that childhood delight making people that grow green hair out of their often comical stocking heads.

All the seeds the children were loading up into the stockings were treated – whether insecticidal or fungicidal. The unintended consequence of not naming these chemicals is that there becomes a perceived lower risk in handling.

Don’t you think correct chemical names for the pesticides and insecticides coating these seeds need to be to be on the label and not hidden in these company’s filing cabinets?

Just like European and US seed retailers who must transparently disclose the active chemical on their product labels.

It seems only logical. And safe. I am very curious to know, just who is the New Zealand government protecting?

ends

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