The Environmental Protection Agency will have some work to do, now that a federal court has decided it didn't comply with the Endangered Species Act. You see, the EPA approved the registrations for 59 pesticide products without first consulting with the US Fish and Wildlife Service on whether those chemicals posed a risk to endangered species.
It's quite a big "oops," actually, because these pesticides are all neonicotinoids. If that term sounds familiar, it's because that's the type of insecticide many scientists believe has been killing bees for the last decade.
Neonicotinoids are thought to be responsible for the phenomenon called "colony collapse disorder," in which entire bee colonies just disappear almost overnight. The worker bees leave their hives and their queen behind, but no one knows where they go. American beekeepers began reporting this phenomenon in 2006.
Farmers use seeds coated with neonicotinoid insecticides on an incredible 150 million acres of cropland. We now grow our soybeans, corn, cotton, wheat and some fruits and vegetables this way. And neonicotinoid seed coatings vastly increased the percentage of crops that are exposed to insecticides.
Once, perhaps 30 percent of corn acres were treated with insecticides, but after the introduction of neonic seed coating in the mid-2000s, 80 to almost 100 percent of corn crops are now routinely exposed.
Neonicotinoid insecticides work differently than other insecticides because they are systemic. And that means the plant actually absorbs the treatment, so it's present in its pollen, nectar, crop tissues/residues, roots and so on.
You can't wash this stuff off -- it becomes part of the plant. So, yes, that means you're eating it too. Neonicotinoids are known to be persistent in soil and soluble in water, according to the Center for Food Safety.
This lawsuit was brought by the Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides, the Sierra Club, the Center for Environmental Health and four beekeepers.
Judge Maxine Chesney of the US District Court for the Northern District of California noted on page 22 of her decision that the EPA established it had evidence of harm to endangered species in its own documents. An EPA fact sheet asserted that an acute or chronic toxic risk to endangered small birds and mammals could result if they ate Clothianidin-treated seeds.
Now, because of this decision, EPA will be required to sit down with the USFWS to determine via Endangered Species Act consultation whether any endangered or threatened species could be affected by these pesticides.
George Kimbrell, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, is elated by what the court did.
"This is a vital victory," he stated. "Science shows these toxic pesticides harm bees, endangered species and the broader environment. More than fifty years ago, Rachel Carson warned us to avoid such toxic chemicals, and the court's ruling may bring us one step closer to preventing another Silent Spring."
What will happen to products using those 59 now-unapproved pesticides?
That remains to be seen, but it's possible their registrations could be cancelled, which could render them unable to be used.
"Vast amounts of scientific literature show the hazards these chemicals pose are far worse than we knew five years ago -- and it was bad even then," Peter Jenkins, a Center for Food Safety attorney, explained.
"The nation's beekeepers continue to suffer unacceptable mortality of 40 percent annually and higher," Jenkins added. "Water contamination by these insecticides is virtually out of control. Wild pollinators and wetland-dependent birds are in danger. EPA must act to protect bees and the environment."
Of all the types of pesticides to pencil-whip an approval for, why choose neonicotinoids? Everyone knows they're under suspicion and may well be causing big problems for bees. It just doesn't make sense.
Fortunately, the system works.
It took litigation by a coalition of concerned people to remind the EPA that it must abide by all legal requirements. Before the EPA can allow pesticides and insecticides to be used, we must know their impacts on delicate, at-risk species that might be adversely affected.