Global Agriculture

Groups Sue EPA Over Failure to Regulate Insecticide-Coated Seeds

03 June 2023, San Francisco: Today, Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to close a regulatory loophole allowing insecticide-coated seeds to avoid regulation. Today’s filing follows years of inaction by EPA, allowing pesticide-coated seeds to proliferate across 150 million acres of US cropland and cause widespread harm to bees, birds, and other essential pollinators, beneficial insects, and endangered species.

Seeds coated with highly toxic insecticides known as neonicotinoids have devastating environmental effects and are often deadly. For songbirds, ingesting just one neonic coated seed can cause serious harm or death.

“Despite knowing the ongoing grave harms caused by coated seeds, EPA has still unlawfully refused to close the loophole allowing them to escape any regulation,” said Amy van Saun, senior attorney at Center for Food Safety and counsel in the case. “That decision is as unlawful as it is irresponsible. EPA is supposed to protect these species and habitats, not enable their peril and we are asking the court to tell the agency to do its job.”

Crops grown from pesticide-coated seeds, including corn, soybeans, and sunflower seeds, cover over 150 million acres of U.S. farmland each year. Neonicotinoids are taken up into the plant’s circulatory system as the plant grows, permeating leaf, pollen, nectar, and other plant tissues. Neonicotinoids also cause paralysis and death to beneficial pollinators, such as bees and butterflies. Strikingly, more than 80% of the neonicotinoid coating can leave the seed, contaminating the air, soil, and waterways of surrounding environments. Clouds of neonicotinoid-laced dust released during planting have caused mass die-offs of honeybees and wild native bees. EPA recently admitted grave harm to hundreds of endangered species from the insecticides that coat these treated seeds.

“For too long, EPA has allowed pesticide-coated seeds to jeopardize threatened and endangered species across the country,” said Margaret Reeves, senior scientist at PANNA, a plaintiff in the case. “EPA must close the regulatory loophole for toxic pesticide-coated seeds to prevent further harm to wildlife, ecosystems, and people.”

Today’s filing follows a 2017 CFS rulemaking petition calling on EPA to close the loophole that allows these coated seeds to evade federal pesticide registration and labeling requirements, which are otherwise required for all insecticides. EPA ignored the petition for years, forcing CFS to sue the agency in 2021 and force an answer through settlement. EPA then finally answered the petition only to deny it. This case now challenges that denial as unlawful.

On June 16, 2022, EPA released its final biological evaluations for three major neonicotinoid active ingredients—clothianidin, thiamethoxam, and imidacloprid—as required by a settlement in an earlier CFS case. Incredibly, EPA found that these neonic insecticides are likely to adversely affect up to 66% to 75% of endangered species in the United States—1,225 to 1,445 species in all.

EPA’s lack of regulation of these pesticidal seeds also poses public health dangers to communities. In 2021, residents of Mead, Nebraska suffered serious health effects from the fumes and runoff of an ethanol plant using coated seeds as feedstock. The pollution caused widespread health problems for the town, including throat irritation, nosebleeds, rare infections and other ongoing health problems from the neurotoxins coating the corn seeds.

The Plaintiffs in the case are represented by counsel from CFS.

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