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Daily News Blog

20
Dec

Court Finds EPA Allowance of Antibiotic Streptomycin Use on Citrus Illegal

(Beyond Pesticides, December 20, 2023) A federal district court decision last week (December 13) found illegal the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to register the antibiotic streptomycin for use in Florida citrus to control Huanglongbing (HLB), also known as “citrus greening,” a plant disease spread by the Asian citrus psyllid. This decision comes just as EPA may allow yet another controversial pesticide, aldicarb, whose registration faces similar issues of agency malfeasance. The streptomycin lawsuit, filed in 2021 by a coalition of farmworker and public interest groups including Beyond Pesticides, raises critical issues of antibiotic resistance, public health protection, and impacts on bees.

The case was filed by: Natural Resources Defense Council and U.S. PIRG, represented by NRDC; Beyond Pesticides, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida (ECOSWF), Farmworker Association of Florida, Farmworker Justice, and Migrant Clinicians Network, represented by Earthjustice; and the Center for Biological Diversity, represented by in-house counsel.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals took EPA to task for its failure to conduct required analyses and issue findings to support the use of streptomycin for citrus greening. The court is particularly concerned about the agency’s failure to reach findings on the impacts on bees and the agency’s responsibility for evaluation under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ruling states, as a part of the agency’s analysis under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), “EPA was thus required to analyze whether the amended registration of streptomycin would have an unreasonable adverse effect on pollinators. Based on our review of the record, we conclude that the EPA’s evaluation of streptomycin’s effects on bees does not pass muster.”

The court continues, “[EPA] admits it did not comply with the ESA. Indeed, the EPA acknowledged that in the thousands of pesticide registrations it has approved in the past decades under FIFRA, it has met its ESA obligations for less than 5% of those actions. The EPA attributes this “multifold” failure to the high volume of pesticide applications, “the unusual complexity” of ESA pesticide reviews, and the proliferation of lawsuits challenging pesticide products. ,. . Even under the new workplan, the EPA does not anticipate being able to complete the effects determination for streptomycin any sooner than fall 2026.”

“In stopping the use of streptomycin on citrus, this court decision holds EPA accountable at the same time that it exposes weaknesses in federal pesticide law and judicial rulings that accept EPA’s limited scientific analysis and unrealistic and unprotective mitigation measures,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides. When the case was filed, Mr. Feldman said, “It is past time to take urgent action to transition away from practices in agriculture that are dependent on antibiotics, advance organic farm management, and avoid new deadly pandemics [associated with antibiotic resistance].”

Streptomycin has been banned for agricultural use on crops in many countries, but in the U.S. its use and the use of oxytetracycline in fruit and vegetable production has been permitted. Under the Trump administration, EPA permitted an emergency use authorization in 2017 to expand use of these antibiotics to Florida citrus crops to control citrus greening. That emergency authorization was to have run out in 2019, but, in January of that year, EPA moved to make the authorization permanent. The decision greenlighted the use of more than 650,000 pounds of streptomycin on citrus crops in Florida and California alone, and followed an approval two years prior of oxytetracycline for use on the same citrus crops.

The court also found that EPA failed to show that streptomycin would achieve benefits as a tool for preventing the target disease. The court found, “[W]e have now concluded that the EPA did not fully comply with FIFRA because it (1) failed to include additional data in its pollinator risk assessment or explain why such data was not necessary and (2) suggested that streptomycin could be used to prevent disease without providing evidentiary support for such a claim.

The court was not convinced that EPA failed to protect against the spread of antibiotic resistance and assumed that the restrictions that EPA required for personal protective equipment (PPE) and drift control would adequately mitigate risks, despite a history of noncompliance and uncontrollable movement of pesticides off the target site. The court said, “The EPA acknowledged that it did not account for noncompliance with PPE requirements in its risk assessment.” However, rather than focus on known limitations in enforcement and compliance with mitigation measures across the agricultural industry, the ruling states, “[T]here is no evidence that it is “difficult or impossible to comply with” the labels’ PPE requirements, which include such standard measures as wearing gloves, coveralls, and respirators. Petitioners cite surveys indicating that non-compliance with PPE requirements is common. But these surveys are not specific to the PPE requirements for streptomycin or citrus growers, nor do they involve use labels akin to the one here. Petitioners have not demonstrated material flaws in the EPA’s determination that mandatory PPE use will reduce direct contact between streptomycin and human bacteria.” The court accepts EPA’s conclusion that there would be no drift of the chemical, given restrictions on spray nozzles. The court notes, “The EPA’s registration label also requires applicators to spray the streptomycin pesticide directly into the orchard canopy and to “turn off outward pointing nozzles at row ends” “to help reduce off-target drift.””

Despite the scientific literature on horizontal gene transfer (movement of genes in bacteria from one bacterial species to another) through agricultural use of pesticides, the court found, ”EPA emphasized that “there is no data that antibiotic use in agriculture leads to the presence of antibiotic resistance in bacteria of human health concern,” and that “[a]t the present time, there is little evidence for or against the presence of microbes of human health concern in the plant agricultural environment.” And yet, on May 19, 2019, The New York Times reported, “The agency approved the expanded use despite strenuous objections from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which warn that the heavy use of antimicrobial drugs in agriculture could spur germs to mutate so they become resistant to the drugs, threatening the lives of millions of people.”

Citrus greening has been successfully managed organically in Florida, with a combination of biological controls and cultural practices. While citrus greening is causing significant disruptions for many growers, organic farms are finding nontoxic and less toxic measures of addressing the problem. Watch the talk given by Benny McLean of Uncle Matt’s Orange Juice at Beyond Pesticides’ National Pesticide Forum held in Orlando, Florida in 2015 for more information about innovative, organic methods to tackle problems in citrus production. see Beyond Pesticides Organic Agriculture page. 

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

Source: Federal Appeals Court Rules Use of Antibiotic as Citrus Pesticide Is Unlawful, Vacates EPA Approval

 

 

 

 

 

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