How the use of pesticide-coated seeds led to an environmental catastrophe that turned a small American town into a virtual Superfund site. Action Alert!
What happens when you mix pesticide-coated seeds and a rogue ethanol plant? An environmental disaster that could poison the water for a decent chunk of the Midwest. This is the reality for people in Mead, Nebraska, who live near a now-shuttered ethanol plant that used pesticide-laden seeds to make ethanol, then stored the toxic byproduct in “lagoons” that ended up polluting the air, water, and soil of the town. 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. We should be concerned not just for the environmental and human health damage caused by this pollution, but the human health impacts of using pesticide-coated seeds to grow our food.
A processing plant located in Mead, Nebraska used seeds coated in neonicotinoid pesticides as part of its production process for ethanol, a corn-based fuel that is mixed into gasoline. A byproduct of this process was a toxic fermented seed mixture that the company, AltEn, sold to farmers as a soil “amendment” to boost fertility. What it couldn’t sell, it stored in massive “lagoons.” After the plant was closed down by state regulators for multiple environmental law violations, a ruptured pipe sent 4 million gallons of contaminated wastewater into local waterways, contaminating local wells and groundwater, and potentially contaminating an underground aquifer that supplies water across the Midwest.
After this catastrophe, Nebraska passed a law banning the use of pesticide-coated seeds in ethanol production, but it is the only state to do so. It isn’t clear how many of the US’s 210 other ethanol plants use pesticide-treated seeds; the practice isn’t illegal. As you can see in this map of ethanol refinery locations, most refineries are located in the Midwest in states like Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, and Kansas.
Ethanol plants like the one in Mead typically use high-starch grains like corn; the byproduct from ethanol production, known as distillers mash, is sold as livestock feed. But AltEn did things a bit differently. For decades, the company collected leftover seeds from around the country that were coated with pesticides. AltEn even advertised itself as a “recycling” location where seed companies could offload their excess pesticide-treated seeds. This gave them a free supply for their ethanol production, but the byproduct from the chemical-treated seeds was too toxic to sell as animal feed. Instead, the company stored the lime-green mash of fermented seeds in huge lagoons and distributed some to local farmers to apply to their land. For years, AltEn also left an 84,000-ton pile of fermented seed waste in an unlined waste pit, allowing water-soluble noenicitinoids to seep into soil and reach groundwater; when it rained, runoff from this pile would contaminate local waterways, and during dry spells, toxic dust could carry contaminants off the pile and through the air.
Residents describe 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: a University of Nebraska researcher reported that every single beehive on a university farm located a mile outside of Mead died off, the timing coinciding with AltEn’s use of chemical-treated seeds. The researcher supplied video of butterflies and birds in the area that appear neurologically impaired.
In February 2021, state regulators closed down AltEn’s plant and are currently suing the company for violating state environmental laws dealing with how solid waste, like the seed sludge, was being stored, how wastewater discharges from the seed “lagoons” were improperly managed, and for pollution of waterways without a permit, among other violations cited by the lawsuit. But that was just the beginning.
Just days after the shutdown, a frozen pipe ruptured at the plant and sent 4 million gallons of wastewater into local rivers and streams. 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. Environmental regulators detected noenicitinoids and fungicides 40 feet below ground at a drinking water well six miles downstream from the ethanol plant. Experts say that this is an indication that the process of contamination is only just beginning because toxins can take years to filter down through the soil and into the aquifer.
The toxic fermented seed lagoons are still there, a year later. They have been covered in a mixture of cement, clay, and polyester to try to trap the toxic material until a longer-term solution is developed. But before that, inspections of the lagoons found tears in the liner that could have allowed the waste to seep into the ground. The concentration of toxic pesticides in the lagoons is staggering. Neonicotinoids were detected at over 5,000 times the level considered “safe” by the EPA.
Sadly, it would be a mistake to say that this is a “lesson learned” and this kind of catastrophe will be avoided in the future. The use of chemically-treated seeds is increasing, partly because there is a loophole in federal law that allows seeds to be coated with toxic pesticides without any requirement that the EPA assesses the environmental or public health effects of their use—meaning there is effectively no oversight of this practice.
The rationale for using treated seeds is to increase crop yields. When seeds are planted, there are many diseases and pests that can attack young seeds and seedlings. Using seeds treated with pesticide reduces the need to spray chemicals during the growing season. But research is finding that farming strategies that foster beneficial, predatory insects can be more effective than pesticides at pest management. In fact, a 2015 study found that the use of coated soybeans actually reduced crop yields by poisoning the predators that kill slugs, which can cause extensive damage to corn and soy fields. And the supposed benefit of not having to spray as many pesticides during the growing season is offset by the fact that about 40 percent of farmers are unaware that their seeds are treated with insecticides. Seed treatment also increases the proportion of pesticides that enter soil and groundwater: from 90 to 99 percent of the active ingredient in a seed coating is lost to air, soil, and water.
Over 150 million acres of farmland are planted with chemically-treated seeds, including nearly four tons of neonicotinoids. Almost every corn and cotton seed planted in the US is coated in pesticides, about half of soybean seeds. This tool allows you to see where pesticides are being applied in the US. States like Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri seem to be hotspots for neonicotinoid application.
Let this sink in: the seeds used to grow our food have led to an entire town becoming a Superfund site.
The EPA is, once again, selling consumers out to protect special interests. Seed companies are allowed to get away with poisoning our water, air, and soil with pesticide-coated seeds that don’t even deliver on the promise of higher crop yields. And these seeds are becoming the standard for growing commodity crops like corn, soy, and cotton. Avoiding these foods—and the ultra-processed foods that corn and soy are used to produce—is one way to avoid the potential health impacts of these coated seeds. You can also stick to organic produce or produce grown by local farms that you trust.
We need to shift to a regenerative approach to human health as well as agriculture. This means reducing toxic inputs into our soil, water and air, and increasing the availability of nutrient-dense foods. Healthy food can support a regenerative approach to healthcare where diet, proper supplementation, and the avoidance of toxins and pollutants address key sources of our chronic disease epidemic.
We need to close the loophole that allows seeds coated in toxic chemicals to be used without any oversight or safety evaluation.
Action Alert! Write to Congress and the EPA, telling them to close the loophole that allows pesticide-coated seeds to be on the market without safety evaluations. Please send your message immediately.