Agriculture News

July 10, 2013 at 1:21 pm

Beekeepers Sue EPA Over Pesticide Sulfoxaflor’s Approval

Is Avoiding a New Pesticide Too Little To Save Our Pollinators?

The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t always live up to its name. They’ve recently backed off from a multimillion-dollar investigation into fracking’s affects on groundwater and are regularly the subject of lawsuits by groups claiming that they’re not doing their jobs as well as they should.

When the EPA was founded in the early 1970s, the director saw the new agency as a way to develop an “environmental ethic” among American citizens. After passing laws and regulations that took care of the most egregious environmental offenses, working toward clean water, air, and protection of endangered species, 1980s budget cuts under Reagan and industry pressure made it difficult for the EPA to keep up its initial promises.

Today one of a few lawsuits in front of the EPA is coming from a swarm of angry citizens, beekeepers claiming that the pesticide sulfoxaflor was deemed safe despite proof that it can cause serious harm to bees. In studies, sulfoxaflor was determined to have “Suggestive Evidence of Carcinogenic Potential” and be “very highly toxic” to both adult and larval honey bees as well as other pollinators.

However, in comments against the registration of the new pesticide, none “pointed to any data to support the opinion that registration of sulfoxaflor will pose a grave risk to bees,” according to the EPA’s report. Instead beekeepers, citizens, and groups like Beyond Pesticides and the Center for Food Safety focused on the fact that studies were inconclusive and the EPA shouldn’t allow registration of yet another pesticide that may pose harm to pollinators.

If Ag doesn't take bees into consideration, how long before they're gone?[Flickr - Marko Ćipović]

If Ag doesn’t take bees into consideration, how long before they’re gone?
[Flickr – Marko Ćipović]

The EPA added language to application data that specifically warns growers not to spray crops with the new pesticide at various points in the bloom cycle related to the crop’s attractiveness to pollinators. However, these are only advisory guidelines. On plants like ornamentals and strawberries, classified as “mildly to highly attractive to pollinators”, the EPA plans to write, “Notifying known beekeepers within 1 mile of the treatment area 48 hours before the product is applied will allow them to take additional steps to protect their bees.”

In addition to years’ long problems with Colony Collapse Disorder, pests, and other mysterious illnesses among pollinators, 50,000 bumblebees were found dead last month after an application of a neonicotinoidal pesticide to ornamental trees while they were in flower. Likewise, 37 million bees were found dead in Ontario last week. Current estimates of the number of surviving hives in the U.S. show that these colonies may not be able to meet the pollination demands of agricultural crops.

With hives continuing to underperform or die off, current estimates pose that there may not be enough pollinators to meet the rising agricultural demand. Even if the EPA’s claim that the effects of sulfoxaflor are short-lived is true, to continue current farming practices we may need to curb even the slightest disruptions to pollinator health.

This appeal process through court is the only available route to challenging the EPA’s decision to approve the new pesticide. Yet while keeping one new pesticide from market is potentially beneficial to pollinators, does it really do enough? It feels akin to championing against a new car while keeping all the old ones on the roads without change. Without more careful application of pesticides – for example, enacting hefty fines against farmers who do apply them without regard to printed warnings on behalf of pollinators – bees have more problems on their plate than sulfoxaflor

-Tove K. Danovich