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Daily News Blog

24
Jan

Legal Case Opens To Stop Antibiotics in Citrus and Advance Organic, Given Resistant Bacteria Crisis

(Beyond Pesticides, January 24, 2023) Oral arguments begin this week in a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) approval of the antibiotic streptomycin as a pesticide on citrus crops. Brought forth by a coalition of farmworker, health, and environmental groups, the lawsuit aims to stop the use of a critical medical treatment for agricultural purposes. “Humanity’s dwindling supply of medically effective antibiotics is not worth sacrificing for an industry that has safer alternatives available,” said Drew Toher, community resource and policy director at Beyond Pesticides. “Despite the challenges, we know from the elimination of this material in organic production that we don’t need antibiotics in order to produce a glass of orange juice.”

 In 2020, the Lancet published an article that identifies several of the multiple and interacting crises the U.S. and world face, with a focus on another “looming potential pandemic . . . [a] rise in multidrug-resistant bacterial infections that are undetected, undiagnosed, and increasingly untreatable, [whose rise] threatens the health of people in the USA and globally.” It calls on leaders in the U.S. and beyond, asking that even as they address the current coronavirus pandemic, they also attend to the antimicrobial resistance (AMR) problem, which is a growing threat to public health. The coauthors outline a number of strategies for progress on AMR, including banning of medically important antibiotics in agribusiness, and promoting consumer, and supplier and private sector, awareness and action on food choices. 

The growing threat of antibiotic resistance is a major health care issue. Beyond Pesticides has written, “Many bacterial infections are becoming resistant to the most commonly prescribed antibiotics, resulting in longer-lasting infections, higher medical expenses, the need for more costly or hazardous medications, and the inability to treat life-threatening infections. The development and spread of antibiotic resistance is the inevitable effect of antibiotic use. Bacteria evolve quickly, and antibiotics provide strong selection pressure for those strains with genes for resistance.”

EPA registered streptomycin as a tool for citrus growers because it can suppress Huanglongbing (HLB) disease, also known as citrus greening, caused by a bacterial pathogen transmitted by the invasive Asian citrus psyllid. HLB results in citrus fruit becoming green, misshapen, and bitter. The agency also claims streptomycin “will aid resistance management” for citrus canker disease, a contagious pathogen that can be spread by wind, rain and human activity. Once infected, citrus canker is incurable. Growers may use copper pesticides to delay the inevitable, but there is growing concern of resistance to copper compounds.  

While both diseases represent legitimate concerns for the citrus industry, advocates are clear that the answer cannot be to take an important human medical treatment and broadcast spray hundreds of thousands of pounds across upwards of 650,000 acres of US cropland. EPA’s short-sighted response may help the industry in the short term, but most of these benefits will be seen not by farmers but top-level executives, with the long-term risk of exacerbating the pre-existing epidemic of antibiotic resistance.

Data show that over 35,000 Americans die each year because of antibiotic resistant bacteria. And antibiotic-based pesticides present a significant risk to endangered animals in citrus growing regions, like Florida panthers and Joaquin kit foxes, in addition to dwindling pollinator populations.

The health risk of this decision is greatest to the essential workers that manage citrus groves. “The use of streptomycin as a pesticide continues to be an ongoing threat to the health and safety of our farmworkers, who are at the frontlines of feeding our nation,” said Jeannie Economos, coordinator of the Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Program at Farmworker Association of Florida. “We’re urging swift resolution of this case and an end to the misuse of medically important antibiotics within our food systems. Every day of delay means more farmworkers are exposed, putting themselves and their families at risk.”

The lawsuit against EPA’s decision includes Beyond Pesticides, US Public Interest Research Group, Environment Confederation of Southwest Florida, Farmworker Association of Florida, Farmworker Justice, Migrant Clinicians Network, represented by Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, and Center for Biological Diversity. Petitioners argue that EPA failed to ensure that the approved uses of streptomycin as a pesticide would not result in unreasonable adverse effects on human health or the environment, and say that EPA failed to adequately assess risks streptomycin poses to endangered species.

EPA decision put it at odds with other agencies, as officials with both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have raised concerns about using medically important antibiotics as pesticides.

Concerns over turning medical treatments into pesticides are not conjecture but borne out of experiences already concerning on the ground. There is significant evidence available now that widespread use of human-important antifungal drugs as antibiotics is resulting in resistance to dangerous fungal pathogens that are now infecting humans. Aspergillus fumigatus, a common mold found in soils and composts, has become increasingly virulent to humans. Between 2000 and 2013, cases of invasive aspergillosis increased 3% per annum, and roughly 300,000 worldwide are diagnosed each year. Data show that roughly 20% of Aspergillus fumigatus samples are resistant to azole fungicides used in agriculture but also critical for human treatments. By finding evidence that the same infections strains of Aspergillus fumigatus were also resistant to non-azole agricultural fungicides, scientists provided a direct link from hospital infections to on-farm fungicide applications.  In the same vein, the emerging fungal pathogen Candida auris displays 90% of infections resistant to one drug, and 30% to two or more, with this resistance tracing back to farm use.

Nearly 10 years ago, Beyond Pesticides’ galvanized action on the National Organic Standards Board to eliminate the use of antibiotics like streptomycin in organic apple and pear production. At issue was the destructive bacterial disease fire blight, which can turn blossoms, leaves, twigs, and branches of affected trees black, having the appearance of being hit by fire. Despite the challenges, farmers were able to transition to resistant varieties and craft system management plants to better address outbreaks without resorting to antibiotic use.

Unlike the challenge to organic apple and pear growers, chemical-based citrus farmers already have proof of concept that citrus crops can be grown to market without the use of medically important antibiotics. Organic citrus farmers are prohibited from employing not only antibiotics, but other toxic pesticides such as the systemic neonicotinoids that are often used on chemical farms. Organic growers like Uncle Matt’s in Florida discuss the importance of breeding programs for tolerant rootstock, the use of botanical insecticides such as neem and clove oil, and the release of the biological control agent Tamarixia wasps, which feed on Asian Citrus Psyllids. Watch Uncle Matt’s Benny McClean, production manager, speak about organic citrus production in Florida at Beyond Pesticide’s 33rd National Pesticide Forum.

While the organic approach shows the wisdom and value of organic’s drive towards ‘continuous improvement,’ EPA’s response to industry executives crowing about the potential for declining profit margins represents a short-sighted, knee-jerk reaction. Advocates implore there is no need to steal from our health future to protect the inability of the citrus industry to responsibly manage its problems; what’s needed is a strategy that represents a long-term investment in the future of citrus production. Rather than bringing new chemicals to the market, EPA should work with growers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to deploy resistant rootstocks, new biologicals and truly least-toxic pesticides.

For more information about the dangers of antibiotics in farming, see Beyond Pesticides article Agricultural Uses of Antibiotics Escalate Bacterial Resistance.

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

Source: Earthjustice press release

 

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