EPA Sued Over Failure to Close Pesticide-Coated Seed Loophole Killing Bees and Endangered Species

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15 December 2021, California: Yesterday, Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Pesticide Action Network of North America sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the agency’s failure to regulate pesticide-coated seeds, harming bees and other pollinators. These crop seeds are coated with systemic insecticides known as neonicotinoids, the most widely used insecticides, and have devastating environmental effects. CFS filed a rulemaking petition back in 2017 that would close the loophole, but EPA has still never addressed it.

“Nearly five years ago, we provided EPA the legal blueprint to solve this problem and the legal impetus to do it, yet they have still sat on their hands,” said George Kimbrell, CFS legal director and counsel in the case. “While EPA fiddles, grave harm to bees and other pollinators continues. That delay must end.”  

Crops grown from coated seeds, such as corn, soybean, 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 affect the central nervous system of insects, causing paralysis and death. Sublethal impacts include impaired navigation and learning. As a result, beneficial insects, valuable pollinators, and birds—including threatened and endangered species protected under the Endangered Species Act—are killed or injured. Additionally, more than eighty percent of the pesticide coating can leave the seed, contaminating the air, soil, and waterways of surrounding environments. Most notably, clouds of neonicotinoid-laced dust released during planting operations has caused mass die-offs of honey bees and wild native bees.  

“Science has shown that coating seeds with pesticides is not only ineffective, but can cause real harm to pollinators, workers, and farmers,” said PAN senior scientist Margaret Reeves, a plaintiff in the case. “The vast majority of acres planted in crops such as corn, soybean, and cotton are planted with pesticide-treated seeds, yet farmers know less about pesticides applied to their seeds than pesticides applied in other ways. EPA must regulate this use and mitigate this danger.”

The 2017 petition demanded EPA close a regulatory loophole that allows seeds coated with systemic pesticides (coated seeds) to evade the registration and labeling requirements of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). EPA currently exempts coated seeds from FIFRA’s registration requirements and has failed to assess the risks of these unregulated seeds—while never providing the public with any justification for this exemption.

CFS, through its Pollinators & Pesticides program, has long advocated for thorough, science-based safety testing and proper regulation of new pesticide product uses prior to any marketing and cultivation of crops, in a manner that minimizes lethal and sublethal effects on non-target species. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Pesticide Action Network of North America and Center for Food Safety, represented by counsel from the Center for Food Safety. 

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