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Daily News Blog

24
Apr

EPA Draft Herbicide Strategy Update Further Weakens Plan to Protect Endangered Species

EPA posts "update" to the Draft Herbicide Strategy Framework, weakening efforts to protect endangered species from herbicides.

(Beyond Pesticides, April 24, 2024) On April 16, 2024, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) posted an “update” to the Draft Herbicide Strategy Framework (Draft Herbicide Strategy Framework to Reduce Exposure of Federally Listed Endangered and Threatened Species and Designated Critical Habitats from the Use of Conventional Agricultural Herbicides) that was released last summer, weakening aspects of the agency’s efforts to “protect” endangered species from herbicide use. The update outlines three types of modifications to the Draft Strategy, including “simplifying” its approach, increasing growers’ “flexibility” when applying mitigation measures, and reducing the mitigation measures required in certain situations. By reducing the stringency of the Strategy, advocates are again questioning EPA’s commitment to fulfilling legal requirements under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) or protecting endangered species and their habitats in the midst of an unprecedented rate of global extinction.

ESA is celebrated as one of the most far-reaching conservation laws globally, credited with preventing the extinction of 99 percent of those species the government targets for protection, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). ESA establishes a framework to categorize species as “endangered” or “threatened,” granting them specific protections. Under ESA, EPA is required to consult with relevant agencies when registering chemicals to assess their impact on endangered species. EPA has been found by the courts and numerous investigations to consistently fallen short in fulfilling its statutory obligation when registering and restricting pesticides, as documented by Beyond Pesticides.

This EPA update to the Draft Herbicide Strategy was written to address public comments received by EPA last fall, many of which were submitted by the petrochemical pesticide industry, and reflects the anticipated changes that will be included in the final Strategy to be released on August 30, 2024. It appears that revisions to the Strategy will not address any concerns submitted by Beyond Pesticides and other advocates during the comment period. EPA responded with three categories of revisions to the draft policy and noted that it will not impose immediate requirements or restrictions on existing pesticide use but will adopt mitigation requirements for new herbicide registrations and reviews moving forward. Mitigation measures will only become effective upon EPA approval of herbicide labels. 

  • First, EPA aims to simplify the decision framework for determining mitigation requirements, moving from a nine-point system to four tiers. Additionally, it plans to develop educational materials to help users understand how to determine mitigation needs based on product labeling.
  • Second, EPA intends to enhance flexibility for growers by expanding the menu of mitigation measures, especially for so-called minor and specialty crops (which includes most vegetable production and ornamentals). Note: According to EPA, “Several hundred crops, including most fruits and vegetables, meet the acreage criterion in this definition.” EPA is collaborating with USDA and other agencies to identify additional measures, hosting workshops for agricultural stakeholders to gather input.
  • Third, EPA is exploring ways to reduce mitigation requirements in certain circumstances, such as areas with “minimal” runoff or where growers have adopted practices to reduce pesticide runoff. It also considers whether participation in agricultural conservation programs could fulfill mitigation requirements.

Apart from these changes, EPA says it is working on refining species range maps with USFWS to ensure a narrower delineation of areas requiring pesticide-related mitigation measures, certainly resulting in a reduction of restrictions under the final strategy for many species

This update to the EPA Draft Herbicide Strategy follows closely on the heels of a commentary by the Wall Street Journal that EPA is “walking back” a proposal for the ambitious Vulnerable Species Project (VSP), a project that is related to EPA’s efforts to protect endangered species from herbicides in compliance with ESA, in favor of a much smaller project with looser restrictions and narrower requirements. EPA published a November 2023 update to the VSP that indicates a retreat from its July 2023 proposal, similar to the capitulation seen in this April EPA update to draft Herbicide Strategy. 

Together, these moves suggest that EPA is proceeding with “business as usual” and that its decisions continue to embrace a narrow approach to risk mitigation. EPA does not evaluate “reasonableness” of risk considering the availability of less toxic alternative substances and practices. Beyond Pesticides maintains that practices to eliminate the need for pesticides must be emphasized because so many pest problems are a function of faulty management practices. Instead, EPA assumes the need for pesticide dependency, even though the scientific literature and empirical evidence may say otherwise.

Over the years, the slow pace of litigation has been a critical strategy in compelling pesticide restrictions to protect endangered and threatened species. The Strategy itself arose from litigation along with a suite of related projects and programs to revamp EPA’s regulation of pesticides and herbicides. A 2011 lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and Pesticide Action Network North America forced EPA to finally reach a 2023 agreement to take measures to protect threatened and endangered species when it approves pesticides.

Moreover, EPA’s risk assessment process, in which EPA uses data on how a pesticide moves through the environment and its relative toxicity to assess its impacts to the ecosystem, is criticized as being seriously flawed (see here). EPA’s registration (and periodic 15-year pesticide registration review) process relies on industry-provided data and safety research, which has been wrought with deficiencies and a lack of a strenuous audit process. Agrochemical companies sometimes purchase research that yields biased or distorted findings, cherry-pick results in their submissions to EPA, or try to suppress research findings. For example, as Beyond Pesticides reported in 2021, researchers at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, found that most of the studies submitted by Monsanto/Bayer to register glyphosate (Roundup) in the European Union were not “scientifically reliable” or only “partly reliable.”

Recognizing that its Office of Pesticide Programs has failed to meet its obligation to protect endangered species from registered pesticides, EPA has devised a strategy to redefine its responsibilities to protect endangered species in its pesticide registration and registration review program. According to EPA, “The proposed Strategy is structured to provide flexibility to growers to choose mitigations that work best for their situation. Additionally, the draft Strategy may require more or less mitigation for growers/pesticide applicators depending on their location.”

EPA has taken this approach after finding it virtually impossible to meet the statutory obligations of ESA—a fact that the agency itself admits, “EPA’s Pesticide Program has been unable to keep pace with its ESA workload, resulting not only in inadequate protections for listed species but also successful litigation against the Agency.” And “(e)ven if EPA completed this work for all of the pesticides that are currently subject to court decisions and/or ongoing litigation, that work would take until the 2040s, and even then, would represent only 5% of EPA’s ESA obligations.”

As Beyond Pesticides previously reported, EPA starts with the position that farmers must use toxic chemicals, an assumption that clouds and undermines the regulatory process and supports farmers being on a pesticide treadmill. EPA says, “Without certain pesticide products, farmers could have trouble growing crops that feed Americans and public health agencies could lack the tools needed to combat insect-borne diseases.” Not true, according to advocates. Productive and profitable organic farmers are not reliant on these pesticides (see here for Rodale Institutes’ 40-Year Farming Trial Report). Fundamental change requires EPA in every pesticide registration and registration review to ask whether there are practices that can eliminate the harm, not reduce risk with high degrees of uncertainty.

The planet faces an existential biodiversity crisis, with a rising number of species on the brink of extinction. The goal of ESA is to address the broader issue of biodiversity loss by protecting habitats of species most at risk, or, as stated in ESA, to “Provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species, and to take such steps as may be appropriate to achieve the purposes of the treaties and conventions set forth. . .” in the law.

On the contrary, EPA’s language about its proposed changes includes phrases like “draft Strategy may require more or less mitigation for growers/pesticide applicators depending on their location.” Advocates note that this is not a plan to avoid biodiversity collapse.

Pesticide use is a major cause of declining biodiversity, which manifests in extinctions, endangered species, and species vulnerable to environmental disturbances—including climate change, habitat fragmentation, and toxic chemicals. If the EPA is serious about protecting biodiversity, it must first look at the ways it has created the crisis in the first place.

Yet EPA admits the limitations of its own proposal, saying, “The scope of this document is limited to spray drift, aqueous runoff, and runoff of sediment-bound residues (erosion).” Moreover, EPA fails to recognize that the agency does not have toxicological data for key endpoints or health outcomes like endocrine disruption, an effect that can wipe out a species by undermining its ability to reproduce.

Pesticides are a major contributor to the loss of insect biomass and diversity, known as the “insect apocalypse,” posing a threat to life on Earth. EPA’s registration of insecticides has always endangered insects, but herbicides destroy the food and habitat of insects. Similarly, pesticides threaten food webs in aquatic and marine environments.

Pesticides threaten frogs and other amphibians in a way that demonstrates the potential to warp the growth and reproduction of all animals. Agricultural intensification, particularly pesticide and fertilizer use, is the leading factor driving declines in bird populations.

Industrial agriculture eliminates habitat—either through outright destruction or through toxic contamination. In much of the U.S., agricultural fields are bare for half the year and support a single plant species for the other half. As opposed to industrial agriculture, organic producers are required to conserve—protect and increase—biodiversity.

Organic agriculture is a viable, productive option that is embraced by consumers and thrives as a $60 billion industry.  This market success comes despite structural bias in USDA funding or programs, including the continued subsidization of conventional and monocrop agriculture Congressional Farm Bill. Consumers continue to make a difference by choosing to buy organic- reducing their own exposure to pesticide residues from conventional produce- and supporting organic farming, which protects not just consumers but farmworkers, surrounding ‘fence-line communities’, and the environment, including threatened and endangered species.

As Beyond Pesticides has advocated since its founding, supporting organic agriculture must include consideration of and protection for farmworkers. Read more about agricultural justice here and here.

In the face of growing recognition that the planet faces an existential biodiversity crisis, with a rising number of species on the brink of extinction, a coalition of environmental organizations, including Beyond Pesticides, sent an urgent letter to President Joe Biden. This letter, titled “Meeting the Challenges of the Biodiversity and Extinction Crisis Over the Next 50 Years,” calls for bold and comprehensive action to preserve our planet’s natural heritage for future generations. To join with Beyond Pesticides in future actions, click here.

Beyond Pesticides works to expand support for public organic land care through our Parks for a Sustainable Future program, converting local parks and playing fields to organic land management practices to make them safer for kids, people, pets to play, while protecting all species and our environment. Beyond Pesticides is also honored to partner with Natural Grocers. During the month of April 2024, Natural Grocers is donating $2 for every Ladybug Love pouch sold and $1 for every “Organic Month Headquarters” bag sold at all in-store locations to Beyond Pesticides! With your support, we can say YES to the livable future we aim to achieve for endangered species, people, and the environment we all share.

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

Sources

EPA Draft Herbicide Strategy Full plan. EPA Public Docket, EPA-HQ-OPP-2023-0365 at www.regulations.gov

Implementing EPA’s Draft Herbicide Strategy. Announcement. Full update, EPA website, April 16, 2024

Protecting Endangered Species from Pesticides, EPA website

EPA Endangered Species Act (ESA) Workplan, EPA website, updated November 2022

Implementing EPA’s Workplan to Protect Endangered and Threatened Species from Pesticides: Pilot Projects, EPA website, updated November 2023

EPA Update on Update on Vulnerable Species Pilot and Press Release, November 2023

EPA Marks National Pollinator Week by Proposing Protections for 27 of the Most Vulnerable Endangered Species, Including Some Pollinators, from Pesticides, EPA Press Release, June 2023

Endangered Species Litigation and Associated Pesticide Limitations, EPA website

Take Action Today: Tell EPA To End Pesticide Dependency, Endangered Species Plan Is Inadequate, Beyond Pesticides, October 20, 2023

Landmark Legal Settlement Locks in EPA Actions to Protect Endangered Species From Pesticides, Center for Biological Diversity Press Release, September 2023 

Corporate studies asserting herbicide safety show many flaws, new analysis finds, The Guardian, July 2, 2021

Links to the 53 studies cited in reprint by US Right to Know.

Monsanto’s Roundup (Glyphosate) Exposed, Beyond Pesticides, Pesticides and You, 2017

Farming Systems Trial 40 Year Report, Rodale Institute, November 2022

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