Beyond Pesticides January 8, 2016
This week the Center for Food Safety, on behalf of several beekeepers, farmers and sustainable agriculture and conservation groups, filed a lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday charging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with a failure to adequately regulate neonicotinoid insecticide seed coatings used on dozens of crops throughout the U.S. The suit alleges that EPA has illegally allowed millions of pounds of coated seeds to be planted annually on more than 150 million acres nationwide, constituting a direct violation of the registration requirements established by the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Absent adequate assessment of the serious ongoing environmental harms associated with coated seed use, as well as failure to require the registration of coated seeds and enforceable labels on seeds bags, this lawsuit demands immediate action to protect beekeepers, farmers and consumers from the harms associated with neonicotinoid coated seeds.
Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides that share a common mode of action that affects the central nervous system of insects, resulting in disorientation, paralysis and death. Neonicotinoid pesticides are tied to recent pollinator declines by an ever-growing body of science. Just this week EPA released a preliminary honey bee risk assessment linking severely declining honeybee populations to the use of the neonicotinoidimidacloprid, which, along with clothianidin andthiamethoxam, is commonly used to coat agricultural seeds. This raises huge concerns because neonicotinoids are persistent in the environment, and when used as seed treatments (as well as drench treatments), translocate throughout the plant (thus are systemic), ending up in pollen and nectar and exposing pollinators like bees, birds, and butterflies long after the planting season has ended.
Not only are neonicotinoid coated seeds harmful to pollinators, they also offer little economic value to farmers. In 2014, EPA released a memorandum concluding that soybean seeds treated with neonicotinoid insecticides provide little or no overall benefits in controlling insects or improving yield or quality in chemical-intensive soybean production. The memo states, “In studies that included a comparison to foliar insecticides, there were no instances where neonicotinoid seed treatments out-performed any foliar insecticide in yield protection from any pest.” A report by Center for Food Safety that same year assembled the scientific literature that refutes claims that neonicotinoids bring greater benefits than costs to farmers. In the report, researchers analyzed independent, peer-reviewed, scientific literature and found that the benefits of prophylactic neonicotinoid use via seed treatments are nearly non-existent, and that any minor benefits that did occur were negated due to honey bee colony impacts, reduced crop pollination by honey bees, reduced production of honey and other bee products, loss of ecosystem services, and market damage from contamination events. Furthermore, preliminary reports out of the UK find that the country is poised to harvest higher than expected yields of canola in its first neonicotinoid-free growing season since the European moratorium on neonicotinoids went into place in 2013.
The lawsuit seeks to challenge EPA’s reliance on FIFRA’s “treated article exemption,” which, to this point, has been used to allow the pesticide industry to circumvent proper registration and review of neonicotinoid coated seeds. The treated article exemption exempts from regulation “an article or substance treated with, or containing a pesticide to protect the article or substance itself, if the pesticide is registered for such use.” 40 CFR § 152.25. Plaintiffs argue that, due to the systemic nature of neonicotinoids, coated seeds are “pesticide” products under FIFRA and require review by EPA. The lawsuit claims that neonicotinoid coatings are not merely intended to protect the seed before germination, but instead designed to carry the active ingredients via the plants’ circulatory system into every living tissue of the plant, thereby imparting the pest injuring (or pesticide) capability to the plant. In doing so, the lawsuit states, the treated article exemption does not apply to the coated seeds. Plaintiffs allege that exempting coated seeds from FIFRA registration is an ultra vires (beyond legal authority) use of agency power, and that failure to regulate and enforce against this pesticide use under FIFRA is unlawful and a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).
The plaintiffs in the case are beekeepers Jeff Anderson, Bret Adee, David Hackenberg, and Pollinator Stewardship Council, farmers Lucas Criswell and Gail Fuller, and public interest and conservation groups American Bird Conservancy, Center for Food Safety and Pesticide Action Network of North America
Efforts to stop the harm that neonicotinoids are causing are ongoing on many fronts. Across the nation, jurisdictions, like Boulder and Lafayette, Colorado, have been banning or limiting neonicotinoids. Last year, Ontario, Canada proposed a plan to reduce the use of neonic-coated corn and soybean seeds by 80%. In 2013, the European Union issued a 2-year moratorium banning neonics. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced a ban on neonicotinoid insecticides at all wildlife refuges nationwide by this January. For more information on pollinators and pesticides, see Beyond Pesticides’ BeeProtective page.
The Saving America’s Pollinator’s Act remains an avenue for Congress to address the pollinator crisis. Contact your U.S. Representative and ask them to support this important legislation today. You can also get active in your community to protect bees by advocating for policies that restrict their use. Montgomery County, Maryland recently restricted the use of a wide range of pesticides, including neonics, on public and private property. Sign here if you’d like to see your community do the same!
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
Source: CFS press release