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Daily News Blog

10
Dec

Court Steps In to Stop Pesticide Use Not Adequately Regulated, Protects Bees

(Beyond Pesticides, December 10, 2021) In a win for pollinators, a California Superior Court has issued a ruling that sulfoxaflor, a systemic pesticide that is “field legal” but “bee lethal,” can no longer be used in the state. The suit was brought by the Pollinator Stewardship Council and the American Beekeeping Federation. The ruling of the Superior Court of the State of California for Alameda County finds that the argument of the petitioners — that sulfoxaflor approval decisions by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) — is valid. Eliminating this highly bee-toxic pesticide from use in the state is expected to protect not only native bees and other pollinators (including Monarch butterflies in early Spring), but also, the many millions of managed-colony bees that are transported to California for pollination of almond and other crops.

The suit was filed against DPR, Corteva inc., Dow Agrosciences LLC, the Siskiyou County Department of Agriculture, and James E. Smith as Siskiyou County Agricultural Commissioner. Having found for the petitioners’ request for a Writ of Mandate (a court order requiring a lower court or public authority to perform its statutory duty), the court instructed the petitioners to submit a draft writ for the court’s consideration within 30 days of this decision. Thus, the effective date of the ban is not yet known.

Sulfoxaflor is an insecticide registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for use in controlling sucking insects such as aphids, stink bugs, plant bugs, and thrips in agricultural production. It was registered in 2013 for use on many fruit and vegetable crops. Then, as The Washington Post reported, “In 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that federal regulators lacked adequate data to show the pesticide did not pose serious risk to pollinators, and the court vacated the agency’s approval of sulfoxaflor. . . . In 2016, EPA approved use of the pesticide for crops that do not attract bees, as well as for use on certain plants after blooming was complete. The agency also has repeatedly granted emergency waivers to states to allow the use of sulfoxaflor on certain crops because of a lack of effective alternatives for farmers — including more than a dozen such exemptions this year alone for sorghum and cotton.”

In 2019, EPA went on to add to registered uses of sulfoxaflor: for alfalfa, corn, cacao, grains, pineapple, sorghum, teff, teosinte, and tree plantations; it also restored approval for its use, on a huge scale, on crops that pollinators find very attractive, such as citrus, cotton, cucurbits, soybeans, and strawberries. Beyond Pesticides covered the resulting lawsuits against EPA, by the Pollinator Stewardship Council and the American Beekeeper Federation, and by both the Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Food Safety.

Though the agrichemical industry argues that sulfoxaflor is distinct from the neonicotinoid (neonic) class of insecticides, it is considered a very close cousin because its mode of action is essentially the same as that of the neonics. Sulfoxaflor excites or desensitizes nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, and thus, can disrupt normal nervous system development and function. (See more here.) Like all neonics, it is a systemically acting compound; it gets absorbed by all parts of a plant, and is a toxic threat to insects for many days following application. All sorts of organisms can be exposed to sulfoxaflor through their consumption of any plant parts, or as in the case of pollinators, in the collection of pollen and/or nectar.

Neonics are very toxic to pollinators. Sulfoxaflor can damage honey bees even via low-level, short-term exposures — impacts of which can include increased adult mortality, reduce rates of offspring survival, compromise of foraging and learning behaviors, and reproductive damage. A recent Daily News Blog article reports on the extreme sensitivity of wild bees to neonic exposures; the headline reads “One Single Neonic Exposure Saps Wild Pollinator’s Ability to Reproduce.” When bees bring sulfoxaflor-contaminated pollen and nectar back to their hives, the effect on the entire colony can be catastrophic, according to EarthJustice.

Neonics have been widely implicated in the scourge of Colony Collapse Disorder. As Beyond Pesticides wrote in its What the Science Shows webpage, “These individual impacts are compounded at the level of social colonies, weakening collective resistance to common parasites, pathogens other pesticides, and thus leading to colony losses and mass population declines. In 2018, more than two hundred scientists co-authored a ‘Call to restrict neonicotinoids’ on the basis of the . . . evidence implicating neonicotinoids in mass pollinator and beneficial insect declines.” Impacts on wild and native bees are likely to be amplified, compared to those on honey bees, writes the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). In addition to effects on bee populations, sulfoxaflor can negatively affect other insects, such as lady beetles, green lacewings, and minute pirate bugs, all of which are considered beneficial insects because they are aphid predators.

Even some mammals are threatened; according to CBD, “Small mammals — [such as] chipmunks, shrews, and bats — can be exposed to enough sulfoxaflor to cause a significant increase in the death of newborn pups. Increased death in newborns was due to involuntary muscle tightening, leading to the constriction of the diaphragm and asphyxiation. Uncontrollable muscle tightening was so severe in newborn pups exposed to sulfoxaflor in utero that the developing bones were bent and contorted enough to produce severe skeletal birth defects at higher doses. . . . Leading pollinator experts have called sulfoximines, of which sulfoxaflor is the first commercially available member, the second-most pressing threat to pollinators in the coming years.”

Response to the court’s decision has been positive in the advocate world. President of the Pollinator Stewardship Council Steve Ellis commented: “Just about every commercial honey bee colony in this country spends at least part of the year in California, so this ruling is incredibly important for protecting pollinators in the United States. In recent years, we’ve seen astounding losses to our honey bee colonies. Removing systemic insecticides such as sulfoxaflor will help ensure honey bees have a healthy future.”

President of the American Beekeeping Federation Joan Gunter had this to say: “The American Beekeeping Federation strongly supports one less systemic insecticide exposure that affects our honey bees. We hope this ruling in California will set a precedent for other systemic insecticides that threaten honey bees.”

One of the two Earthjustice attorneys for the petitioners (with Gregory Muren), Greg Loarie, asserted, “Honeybees and other pollinators are incredibly important in our food systems and our wider ecosystem, but they’re dying in droves because of pesticides like sulfoxaflor. With this ruling, the bees in California are getting much-needed relief just as we’re seeing some of the worst signs of colony collapse. Now, California needs to turn its attention to protecting pollinators from the entire class of neonicotinoid pesticides that threaten our future.”

Beyond Pesticides has reported regularly on the massive decline in insect, and in pollinator, populations, and the outsized role played by pesticides. In 2019, it covered a review of a huge number of insect population studies; the authors pointed to the ubiquity of and reliance on agrochemicals (pesticides and synthetic fertilizers), and increasingly chemical-intensive agriculture globally, as causes of insect decline. Several of the studies in that review cited pesticides as the factor most likely responsible.

EPA’s history of allowing the use of pesticides known to be toxic — to insects, to people, to other organisms, to ecosystems — is literally too long to chronicle in this article. From poor and incomplete risk analysis to what some advocates consider the agency’s “capture” by industry and its agenda, EPA continues its modus operandi — continuing to register, re-register, and expand uses for many noxious pesticides. Beyond Pesticides concurs with this analysis from the Center for Biological Diversity, calling out “EPA’s current trajectory of replacing older neonicotinoids with nearly identical insecticides like sulfoxaflor. Simply replacing one toxic pesticide with another will do nothing to stem the declines in insects we are seeing across the globe.”

Beyond Pesticides welcomes the decision to remove this highly bee-toxic pesticide from use in California, and wishes that EPA would “see the light” and ban sulfoxaflor and all neonics from use. Litigation on damage caused by pesticides is likely only to increase, given the extent of harms and the momentum of recent cases, such as those related to glyphosate and chlorpyrifos. That said, each judicial settlement or knock-down of a particular pesticide highlights the fact that the pace and scope of the “whack-a-mole” approach — whether via litigation or emanating from EPA itself — are wholly inadequate to the harms that toxic pesticides are causing 24/7/365. A precautionary approach is far more suited to the task of genuinely protecting public health and the environment than EPA’s current approach.

As Beyond Pesticides wrote in 2019, “Since Rachel Carson stunned the world and ignited the modern environmental movement with Silent Spring, pesticide regulation has been stuck in a whack-a-mole approach that targets only the most publicly visible, toxic, and researched chemicals for restrictions. By transitioning to organic, not only in food production, but also in the management of pests in lawns and landscapes, and other pest control practices, we can eliminate the broad range of chemicals linked to diseases that are all too common in today’s world, and truly protect public health, wildlife, and the environment.

Sources: https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/lawsuit-challenges-trump-epas-200-million-acre-expansion-of-bee-killing-pesticide-2019-08-20/ and https://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/files/2021-1203_order_granting_writ.pdf

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

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