By Larissa Walker, Center for Food Safety
As bees and other pollinators continue to struggle in the face of rising pesticide use, loss of habitat, parasites, and diseases, a new lawsuit has been filed to stop one of the primary culprits – bee-toxic insecticide seed coatings. These insecticides, called neonicotinoids or “neonics” for short, have received quite a bit of attention in recent years. They have become the most widely used insecticides in the world, and they’re not just toxic to bees, but also to butterflies, birds and many beneficial insects. However, many people may be surprised to learn that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not regulate the largest single use of these extremely toxic chemicals—coatings on seeds for dozens of major crops across the country. This means that these chemicals are applied without adequate safety testing, proper data gathering, or necessary product labeling. Center for Food Safety’s new lawsuit aims to fix this major deficiency.
Let me take a few steps back. Neonics are systemic chemicals and therefore, by coating a seed with them, the active chemical ingredient is taken up into the vascular system of the plant as it grows and is incorporated into all parts of the plant’s tissue. This makes the entire plant toxic to any insect that visits it—including bees. In addition to using these chemicals as seed coatings, there are a handful of other ways that neonics are registered for use: foliar sprays (think traditional spraying of crop fields or sprays for landscaping purposes), soil granules, soil drenches, and trunk injections. But by far, applying neonics as a coating on seeds is their most common use. Researchers estimate that up to 95% of all corn seed in the U.S. comes coated with a neonic, and a large portion of soybean, cotton, wheat, and canola seeds are also coated in these chemicals. Now let me reiterate – EPA is not regulating these toxic pesticidal seeds.
There are several major problems with this. For starters, because the four largest agrochemical and seed companies control nearly 60 percent of the global patented seed market, they have a vested interest in coupling seed sales with chemical sales. Therefore, these companies leave farmers little to no choice as to whether or not to buy seeds coated with neonics. The market is set up to promote the use of the chemicals, regardless of need or consequence.
Secondly, chemical companies are artificially driving up insecticide use by essentially bribing farmers to use coated seeds through special insurance incentives. Insurance ploys shouldn’t be dictating how and when we use pesticides in this country.
The third major problem with this widespread, unnecessary use of seed coatings is that only a small fraction of the active neonic chemical that is coated onto the seed actually gets absorbed into the plant. Depending on the crop, up to 95% of the chemical applied is scraped off the seeds and blown away as dust during machine planting and is absorbed into the surrounding soil and groundwater once planted. As a result, hundreds of millions of acres of land and water have now become contaminated with neonics—everything from wildflowers near crop fields, to countless species’ soil and ground habitats, to nearby surface and groundwater, and even freshwater and marine ecosystems. To top it all off, because neonic-coated seeds are planted year after year and the active ingredients have long half-lives in most soils, the chemicals swiftly build up in our lands and waters, often accumulating past safe thresholds.
This excessive and long-lasting contamination leads us to yet another major problem with neonic seed coatings–their harmful impact on dozens of species. Bees are not the only species at risk from uses of these chemicals—birds, butterflies, beetles, dragon flies, crabs, and crayfish are just a handful of other species negatively affected by neonics.
It’s a long list of negative repercussions, but here’s the icing on the cake: recent research shows that neonic-coated seeds may actually be doing more harm than good for farmers. That is, neonic seed coatings can actually lead to damaging pest outbreaks by killing off natural pest predators that would otherwise keep certain pest populations under control. Even the EPA, in its own assessment, concluded that use of neonic seed coatings provide little to no yield benefit with soybean crops.
Yet, in my mind, the most unfathomable and reprehensible problem with the widespread use of pesticide seed coatings is the fact that the EPA has failed to do its job and protect the environment from this growing list of harmful effects. That’s why today Center for Food Safety, on behalf of several beekeepers, farmers, and sustainable agriculture and conservation groups, filed a lawsuit challenging the EPA’s inadequate regulation of neonic seed coatings. Our lawsuit asserts that the EPA has illegally allowed this widespread environmental contamination to occur without requiring coated seeds to be registered under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), without enforceable labels on the seed bags, and without adequate assessments of serious ongoing environmental harm.
We need a strong regulatory system that can adequately protect people and the environment from the harmful impacts of pesticides. This lawsuit intends to push EPA to do just that with respect to neonic seed coatings. It’s well past time that we put a stop to the unnecessary prophylactic use of neonic seed coatings, and in doing so, greatly reduce the amount of these harmful chemicals that are contaminating our soil and water and jeopardizing pollinators and other critical species. This isn’t a revolutionary idea either—several countries and provinces have already taken such actions out of concern for bees and the environment. For example, the European Union enacted a moratorium on the most toxic uses of neonicotinoids, and Ontario, Canada plans to reduce the number of acres planted with neonic-coated corn and soybean seeds by 80 percent, by 2017. In late 2015, Quebec, Canada also announced plans to restrict uses of neonicotinoids. Working together, governments, citizens, and farmers can and must reduce these alarming levels of pesticide contamination. Future generations deserve access to healthy soil, clean water, vibrant pollinator populations, and the ability to grow food sustainably.