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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) failure to effectively regulate seeds coated with highly toxic pesticides violates federal pesticide laws and is devastating pollinators, wildlife, and landscapes across the country, according to environmental groups who filed a lawsuit last week.
“Crucially, there’s mounting evidence from various studies of the harms that are happening directly from the use of neonics on coated seeds,” says Amy van Saun of Center for Food Safety (CFS), one of the lead attorneys on the case.
“Neonics,” short for neonicotinoids, are insecticides that are already registered under the federal law that controls pesticide use. During registration, the EPA assesses a pesticide’s ingredients, how and where it will be used, and risks associated with the proposed use, and then determines labeling requirements. The EPA has long argued that regulation is enough for neonics, but unlike other pesticides, which are primarily sprayed on crops, the vast majority of neonic use involves companies coating seeds before they’re planted.
And those seeds are not registered as pesticides:
Farmers now plant pesticide-coated seeds on more than 100 million cropland acres across the country; some estimate that 80 to 100 percent of corn acreage is planted with treated seed. As they grow, plants absorb some of the chemical coating, making their tissues toxic to pests. However, most of the coating—at least 90 percent—sloughs off the seeds, contaminating surrounding vegetation, soil, and waterways.
A Civil Eats investigation last year following an environmental disaster in Mead, Nebraska, also found that the EPA is not regulating what happens to unused, expired coated seeds. The chemical coating can make its way into the environment during the disposal process, too.
As a result, many experts and advocates consider the fact that seeds are not registered as pesticides to be a loophole in the law. In 2017, CFS and Pesticide Action Network North America filed a petition asking EPA to close it. In 2021, the agency denied the petition. In response, the groups filed last week’s lawsuit.
And in the years since the initial 2017 petition, evidence for how neonicotinoids harm pollinators and disrupt the functioning of entire ecosystems has continued to pile up.
Last June, the EPA’s own evaluations found that the three most commonly used neonicotinoids are “likely to adversely affect” up to 75 percent of endangered species in the U.S. and also threaten habitats critical to many species’ survival.
Then, last month, the agency released an analysis reiterating the likely harm to more than 1,000 species, including bats, butterflies, cranes, and turtles. For more than 200 of those species, the EPA found, the chemicals pose an existential threat.
All of that evidence will be considered during a registration review of the chemicals due by 2026. In the meantime, if the environmental groups win this case in court, a few key things will change, van Saun explains.
EPA officials would have to more thoroughly consider how the seeds are impacting the environment and could propose mitigation measures.
Coated seeds would also be subject to more serious labeling requirements that detail both proper use and disposal.
And most significantly, during the registration process, the agency would have to directly apply its pesticide cost-benefit analysis to each seed product.
” If they’re going to register a product, say a certain corn seed coated with clothianidin, they’d have to look at the adverse effects and weigh them against the supposed benefits,” van Saun says. “And a lot of what we’ve seen . . . is that some of the benefits are nonexistent.”
For example, one 2020 analysis done in New York found that while fruit and vegetable farmers spraying neonics often had few other options to control threats to their crops, farmers planting corn and soybean seeds coated with neonics realized little to no yield or income benefits as a result.
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