Letter to the EPA: Take Action on “Devil’s Bargain” Pesticides
Originally published in and reprinted with permission of The New Lede.
An Open Letter to:
Michael Regan, Administrator
Michal Freedhoff, Assistant Administrator, Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention
Ed Messina, Office of Pesticide Programs Director, Environmental Protection Agency
The environment needs protection from neonicotinoid-coated pesticidal seeds, which are by far the greatest single insecticide application across the country, covering more than 100 million acres. Fundamental ecosystem integrity, plus the welfare of millions of birds and other animals where the coated seeds are planted, are at risk. You can be the difference makers if you seize the opportunity.
You know, as we NGO-types have recited to you in the past through broadly-supported letters and petitions, that a major body of evidence now shows neonic-coated seeds are the Devil’s bargain. While there may be some effective uses, they are mostly used prophylactically with no assessment of need. And yet they do great harm to essential pollinators, beneficial insects, and farmland birds, while contaminating the environment with their toxins.
In Ontario, Canada, when farmers were compelled to prove they needed to use neonic-coated seeds before being allowed by the provincial government, their use declined by a huge margin with no adverse economic effect.
Neonics have largely been banned in Europe since 2015. But, in the US, their excess production as a result of your agency’s leniency is a waste that resulted in the ongoing tragedy in Mead, Nebraska, where AltEn gathered about 80,000 tons of unwanted neonic-coated seeds in order to distill them for ethanol but instead ending up contaminating the environment to the tune of roughly $100 million in total damages. EPA’s uncritical approval of these seeds enabled the Mead disaster.
Of all the environmental threats in the United States, pesticides are conceptually the easiest to prevent because all the approved products out there resulted from registrations by your agency. But I am not asking you to cancel registrations, I am just asking you to take a closer look at EPA’s interpretation and regulatory issues that have allowed the harms of neonic-coated seeds to spin out of control. In particular, I refer to Office of Pesticide Programs Director Edward Messina’s decision of Sept. 27, 2022, which denied the petition by the nation’s leading commercial beekeeper, Bret Adee, as well as the Center for Food Safety and many others.
Their filing sought a new interpretation of EPA’s Treated Article Exemption to no longer exempt neonic-coated seeds from direct regulation as pesticides. That petition, filed in 2017, laid out clear reasons for doing so.
Indeed, numerous state officials have pleaded with EPA to reform this problem because it directly impacts them. These officials are the front lines for FIFRA enforcement. However, your agency’s Treated Article Exemption leaves the states no ability to enforce against farmers when they plant neonic-coated seeds and unnecessarily kill honey bees or cause other harms. The exemption also acts to protect mis-users from civil liability.
At the end of Messina’s long and unconvincing response denying the CFS Petition, he offered a vague suggestion that EPA would consider future rulemaking to clarify the problems of “labeling claims and use and usage data” that the exemption causes. This is not the time for vagueness; it is the time to act – and you can do so in a proactive way by strengthening EPA’s regulatory approach and answering the pleas of beekeepers, environmental advocates and state officials. It simply is unacceptable to have products that are so potentially harmful with no enforceable warnings or use directions to prevent their misuse.
Another formal petition recently filed with you by 65 NGOs urges a simple amendment of a 40-year-0ld EPA regulation declaring that systemic neonic insecticides cannot be approved without prior submission of actual performance data showing they are effective.
Many studies show their use provides no measurable economic benefit for farmers – and that in some cases they even harm crop yields. As with your agency’s glaring mistake in approving the herbicide dicamba, which is causing numerous heartaches and problems across the Farm Belt, the approval of neonic-coated seeds happened with no foresight on whether the claimed benefits of the coatings exceeded their costs.
For neonics and other systemic insecticides, the simple regulatory change proposed in the NGOs’ efficacy petition could make a huge difference. The EPA should not allow the nationwide use of systemic pesticides that are not first shown to be effective, taking into account all their costs, instead of just presuming them to be beneficial as EPA’s current regulation does. Codifying that presumption, as the agency essentially did back in 1984 when it overtly stated that presumption in the rule preamble, fundamentally violated the agency’s protection mission.
I have worked on trying to rein in neonic damage for almost ten years. Little improvement has occurred. Under your guidance, EPA is making some progress as far as Endangered Species Act compliance for pesticides, but that was the direct result of years of hard fought litigation by NGOs. Now is the time for you to make some non-litigation-driven progress by seizing the two opportunities highlighted in this letter.
We all need you to protect the environment rather than the interests of the pesticide manufacturers.
You can do it. If you don’t, then honey bees, bumblebees, other beneficial insects, farmland birds, and aquatic invertebrates will continue to disappear as the immediate victims. Beyond them, broader ecosystem integrity lies in your hands. It’s a heavy responsibility for which you must be courageous enough to buck pressure from the pesticide manufacturers, farm state members of Congress, and the pro-pesticide offices within USDA. But I have faith that you can do it.
Peter Jenkins is PEER’s senior counsel.