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EPA sued over pesticide-coated seeds

The Environmental Protection Agency regulates pesticide sprays, but not seeds treated with pesticides, which have become prevalent in the U.S.

(CN) — Two non-profit organizations sued the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday over what they say is the federal agency's failure to regulate pesticide-coated seeds.

"Despite knowing the ongoing grave harms caused by coated seeds, the EPA has still unlawfully refused to close the loophole allowing them to escape any regulation," said Amy van Saun, a senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety, one of the plaintiffs, in a press release. "The EPA is supposed to protect these species and habitats, not enable their peril and we are asking the court to tell the agency to do its job."

Coated crop seeds are typically coated with a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which target the central nervous system of insects. They are believed to be harmful to bee colonies, as well as birds and butterflies. Though pesticide sprays are regulated by the EPA, pesticide-treated seeds are not, since they fall under the agency's "treated article exemption."

That means that unlike pesticide sprays, coated seeds do not have to be registered with the EPA and have no label, a starting point for many state regulations requiring transparency.

"If EPA regulated coated seeds the way it does any other pesticide, it would be required to assess data specific to coated seeds’ impact, rather than merely the active ingredient in the liquid coating products," reads the 54-page federal complaint. "It would have to weigh the harms of coated seeds, which are massive, and supported by substantial evidence, against their benefits (shown to be minimal or nonexistent) in support of any coated seed product registration. Finally, if coated seeds were not exempted, they would be counted as pesticides for the various state data collection efforts and investigations of bee kills and other wildlife harms."

First introduced in the 1990s, neonicotinoids are the most widely used insecticides in the world, with more than eight billion pounds of them used on crops every year. Last year, the EPA published a finding that three neonicotinoid insecticides were "likely to adversely affect" more than a thousand endangered species in the U.S. — not just insects but fish, birds and even some mammals.

Planting crops with treated seeds has become by far the most common usage of neonicotinoids in this country. According to the complaint, crops grown from pesticide-coated seeds, including corn, soybeans and sunflower seeds, cover 147 million acres of farmland in the United States, nearly half of all cultivated cropland. At least 90% of all corn grown in the U.S. comes from coated seeds.

"For too long, EPA has allowed pesticide-coated seeds to jeopardize threatened and endangered species across the country," said Margaret Reeves, senior scientist at the Pesticide Action Network, the other plaintiff in the case.

Agribusiness technology companies have defended coated seeds as important tools to keep farming profitable and food cheap. They point to studies showing that without pesticides, farmers would lose as much as half their wheat crops, 70% of their corn and nearly 80% of their rice.

A passage on the website of agtech company Syngenta reads: "Only through continued innovation in agriculture can we meet the extraordinary environmental and food-security challenges ahead and further improve the sustainability of farming activities. Those innovations include biologicals and other forms of crop protection, digitally precise farming, genetic improvements in plants, new and improved kinds of fertilizer — and, yes, environmentally responsible use of chemical pesticides."

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Categories / Courts, Environment, Government

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