SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Bees won a small victory Wednesday when federal regulators announced that an insecticide used nationwide on grains, vegetables and fruit threatens honeybees.
The Environmental Protection Agency said a preliminary risk assessment of imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid insecticide chemically similar to nicotine, indicates that the insecticide poses a risk to hives when it comes into contact with certain crops that attract pollinators.
Bayer CropSciences, the original manufacturer of imidacloprid, responded by saying that the assessment "appears to overestimate the potential for harmful exposures."
The EPA, which collaborated with California's Department of Pesticide Regulation, concluded that chemical residues of more than 25 parts per billion will likely harm bees, which boost the value of crops across the country by an estimated $14 billion annually.
In California, where the chemical is found in more than 180 farm and household products, the almond industry completely relies on almost 1 million commercial hives that are brought in to pollinate 870,000 acres of trees.
Commercial honeybee colonies are also important to crops that include as oranges, blueberries, apples, onions, pumpkins and sunflowers.
The EPA findings show that citrus and cotton crops have chemical residues above the threshold level, while crops such as corn and leafy vegetables either do not produce nectar or have residues below the agency's identified level.
The use of neonicotinoids such as imidacloprid has been much debated, especially since a mysterious disease called colony collapse disorder began devastating beehives.
A two-year moratorium on imidacloprid and two other neonicotinoids took effect in Europe last year, and the EPA proposed a rule in 2015 to ban the use of pesticides that are toxic to bees when crops are in bloom and bees are pollinating the plants.
Friends of the Earth, a network of environmental organizations in 75 countries, said the EPA assessment reinforces independent science that has demonstrated that neonicotinoids are a leading driver of bee declines. Lisa Archer, Food and Technology program director at the organization, urged the agency to suspend bee-toxic pesticides.
"With beekeepers facing continued unsustainable losses, and harm to essential native pollinators mounting, the EPA needs to stop dragging its feet and take decisive action to suspend these bee-toxic pesticides," Archer said.
Imidacloprid-maker Bayer Crop Sciences said that the EPA report "appears to overestimate the potential for harmful exposures in certain crops, while ignoring the important benefits these products provide and management practices to protect bees."
Neonicotinoids "have been widely adopted by growers because of their favorable human and environmental safety profile, especially when compared to the older products they replaced," and are critical because they allow farmers "to manage destructive pests, preserve beneficial insects and protect against resistance," Bayer said.
This is the first of four preliminary pollinator risk assessments of neonicotinoid insecticides that was released by the EPA in December last year.
The Ninth Circuit recently rejected the agency's approval of the neonicotinoid insecticide sufloxaflor after finding that appropriate tests proving its safety were not carried out.
The EPA also faces a new lawsuit, filed Wednesday by the Center for Food Safety on behalf of beekeepers, farmers and other groups, alleging that the EPA has allowed the ongoing sale and use of unregistered pesticide products.
The complaint accuses the agency of allowing millions of pounds of crop seeds coated with active neonicotinoid insecticidal ingredients to be planted annually on more than 150 million acres nationwide, without requiring the coated seeds to be registered under the federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.
Up to 95 percent of the applied seed coating ends up in the air, soil and water, rather than in the crop for which it was intended, leading to extensive contamination, the Center for Food Safety says.
Peter Jenkins, attorney for the Center for Food Safety, said the EPA actions surrounding neonicotinoid seed coatings have led to "intensifying and destructive consequences."
"These include acute honeybee kills, as well as chronic effects to numerous species, nationwide water and soil contamination, and other environmental and economic harms," Jenkins said.
David Hackenberg, a beekeeper for more than 50 years, said he has lost more colonies of honeybees in the past 10 years from after-effects of neonicotinoid seed coatings than from all other causes over the first 40 years of his operation.
"This not only affects my honeybees, but as a farmer it also affects my land and the health of my soil. It is time for EPA to accept the responsibility to protect not only our honeybees and other pollinators, but also our soil and our environment," said Hackenberg, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The complaint seeks to enjoin the EPA from allowing any new unregistered seeds of any crops if they are coated with insecticides that cause pesticidal effects extending beyond the coated seed and plant itself.
Cathy Milbourn with the EPA said that the agency "will review the suit and respond appropriately."
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