The agency is giving pesticide-coated seeds a pass as they poison local communities and destroy ecosystems. Action Alert!
Over the last few months, we’ve been reporting on the health and environmental catastrophe linked to the use of pesticide-coated seeds, which were utilized to produce ethanol at a plant in Mead, Nebraska.
Incredibly, the use of pesticide-coated seeds, both in ethanol production and to grow food, is completely legal, and the EPA has refused to regulate these toxic seeds, probably because it does not want to step on the toes of big agribusinesses. The agency is now being sued by advocacy groups for violating its own pesticide laws. Think about this: the agency charged with protecting the environment and human health needs to be challenged in court to protect the environment and human health over industry profits. It is a sad commentary on state of affairs in Washington, but we must help hold the agency’s feet to the fire.
The lawsuit, brought forth by the Center for Food Safety and the Pesticide Action Network, seeks to close a loophole at the EPA that allows seeds coated with neonicotinoid (neonic for short) pesticides to evade regulation under federal pesticide laws. The groups argue that pesticide-coated seeds should be regulated like other pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which would trigger closer regulatory scrutiny, in particular an analysis of the seeds’ benefits versus their costs to the environment and human health. Notably, if neonic-coated seeds were regulated under FIFRA, the EPA would have to show that the seeds do not cause unreasonable or adverse effects to the environment. As we will discuss below, this would be a heavy lift for the EPA, which is likely the reason the agency is fighting to keep the loophole open.
The EPA claims that the seeds fall under an exemption to FIFRA called the “Treated Article Exception.” These are items treated with pesticides to “protect the item itself.” The examples given by the EPA include treated plastic shower curtains or the incorporation of pesticides into paint.
A common-sense reading of the statute demonstrates how ridiculous the EPA’s position that this exemption applies to treated seeds really is. The exemption applies when a pesticide is added to a product to protect the product itself, i.e. the shower curtain or the paint. Neonicotinoids are added to seeds primarily to protect the growing plant—not the seed itself—from pests. More to the point, between 90 and 99 percent of the seed coating doesn’t even stay on the seed, so it’s not protecting the seed as a coating like the FIFRA exemption intends. The vast majority of the neonicotinoid coating is lost to the soil, air, and water.
This is a massive issue for human health and the environment. Approximately 95% of the land area in the United States treated with any neonicotinoid insecticide is treated via planting coated seeds. Dozens of crops are grown from neonicotinoid-treated seed, including corn, soybeans, wheat, canola, potatoes, sunflowers, cotton, and many vegetables. Every year, 150 million acres of farmland are planted with neonicotinoid-coated seeds.
Because these seeds are unregulated under FIFRA, there are no guidelines for how to properly dispose of the seeds. This negligence led directly to the catastrophe in Mead, Nebraska. To recap: pesticide-coated seeds were utilized to produce ethanol at a plant in Mead. The toxic byproduct of this process was stored in “lagoons” that polluted the air, soil, and water in and around Mead. Residents described the stench of the fermented seed sludge as “acidic, rotten, dead.” If you lived near the plant, you couldn’t open your windows. Birds stopped coming to feeders. People reported nosebleeds and eye irritation. A dog who ate some of the seed mash became sick, exhibiting neurological symptoms. Bee colonies collapsed. Researchers worry about extensive groundwater contamination that could threaten an underground aquifer that supplies water to parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.
Sadly, there is nothing to prevent this from happening again until the EPA decides to regulate these seeds as pesticides. But doing so would require a cost-benefit analysis. Let’s review some of those costs and benefits.
Wide-ranging evidence—even industry-funded studies—has confirmed that neonicotinoids kill pollinators like bees and butterflies at alarming rates, leading to warnings of an impending “insect apocalypse.” To quote the USDA’s Forest Service: “Without pollinators, the human race and all of earth’s terrestrial ecosystems would not survive.” The EPA’s own evaluation found that neonicotinoids are “likely to adversely affect” up to 75 percent of endangered species in the US. Last month, the EPA released another analysis concluding that neonics pose an existential threat to more than 200 species. A 2019 Japanese study found that the introduction of neonics to rice fields led to the disappearance of zooplankton in a nearby lake, ultimately leading to the collapse of the fishery located there. Ingesting just one coated seed can kill a songbird.
Chronic human exposure to neonic pesticides has been associated with adverse neurological and developmental outcomes, including birth defects, autism spectrum disorder, and memory loss.
Now to the perceived “benefits.” The basic argument for using neonics, as for many chemical herbicides and pesticides, is that they increase yields because they protect crops from pests. But numerous studies show that neonics do not meaningfully increase crop yields. This was corroborated by European reports finding that crop yields were maintained even after neonics were banned. Even the EPA agrees: an agency study concluded that neonic-treated seeds “provide negligible overall benefits to soybean production in most situations.” When the EPA asked agricultural experts how neonicotinoid seed coatings affect soybean yield, 74 percent responded that yield either stayed the same or decreased.
So, on the one hand we have a devastated community in Mead, Nebraska, and more generally the threat of an “insect apocalypse” that could throw the world into a species-ending famine, and on the other hand the available information shows that neonicotinoid-coated seeds aren’t effective at increasing crop yields. Any sensible cost-benefit analysis would show that the costs overwhelmingly outweigh the benefits. This may give some insight into why the EPA refuses to regulate treated seeds under FIFRA—to protect industry profits.
We cannot let this stand.
Action Alert! Write to the EPA and tell them to regulate pesticide-coated seeds as pesticides! Please send your message immediately.