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Paul Towers

Court sides with bees, says no to pesticide

Last week, the federal courts took a stand for bees and beekeepers. In their written decision, the judges said EPA had approved a new neonicotinoid pesticide — sulfoxaflor — without adequate review. The court ordered the Dow product be pulled from the market.

The judges also took EPA to task for saying yes to the pesticide despite strong evidence showing that the pesticide was “highly toxic” to bees. This is a real and important, much-needed win for pollinators.

Greg Loarie, the lead attorney for the national beekeeper groups that brought the suit — Pollinator Stewardship Council, American Honey Producers Association and American Beekeepers Federation — explains the ruling’s significance:

The Court’s decision to overturn approval of this bee-killing pesticide is incredible news for bees, beekeepers and all of us who enjoy the healthy fruits, nuts, and vegetables that rely on bees for pollination.”

Rewind to 2013. EPA approved the insecticide, a close cousin to bee-harming neonicotinoids already under scrutiny, despite strong opposition from both beekeepers and the scientific community. Sulfoxaflor was approved for use as a foliar or spray treatment for a variety of crops, including many that bees pollinate — and that end up on our plates.

Beekeeper Jeff Anderson signaled the urgency of the situation: “EPA continues to exacerbate the pressures on beekeepers, whose operations are on the edge of collapse.” Beekeepers, including Anderson, then filed suit. And PAN and partner farming groups voiced strong support.  

The “precariousness of bee populations”

In last week’s ruling, the court found that the EPA relied on “flawed and limited data” to approve the registration of sulfoxaflor, and cited the “precariousness of bee populations.” Perhaps most importantly, they ruled that the agency’s approval was not supported by “substantial evidence.”

What happens now? In a worst-case scenario, EPA officials could continue to ignore the evidence and use its old trick of “conditionally” registering the pesticide, keeping it on the market for years before a thorough review. But that is likely to be increasingly difficult given that bee-harming pesticides are now squarely in the limelight.

Neonicotinoids with difficult to pronounce names — clothianidin, dinotefuran, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam for example — have been linked to bee declines for years. EPA recently approved new pesticides that act on the same receptors in bee brains, including flupyradifurone and cyantraniliprole.

When all is said and done, the approval of sulfoxaflor reflects the classic problem we call the pesticide treadmill. As more science underscores the harms of a pesticide, manufacturers shift to newer, less studied products. It can take regulators years to catch up and respond with appropriate and robust protections. Our precious bee populations don’t have this kind of time.

Focus, EPA. Focus.

While some systemic insecticides like sulfoxaflor are sprayed, an even greater number are applied as seed treatments. As the agency rushed to approve Dow’s latest bee-harming pesticide, it was failing to focus on the most pressing challenges facing bees and beekeepers.

In a letter responding to a flawed proposal from agency earlier this year, nearly a dozen food and farming organizations, including PAN, Kansas Rural Center, National Family Farm Coalition and Washington State Beekeepers Association, called on EPA to address on-the-ground realities of how pollinators commonly come into contact with harmful pesticides — including seed treatments.

PAN’s senior scientist, Marcia Ishii-Eiteman put it this way:

EPA has kept its head in the sand when it comes to pesticide seed coatings. Rather than focusing new rules on the biggest threat to bees, they’re putting time and energy into a problem that has largely already been solved by beekeepers and neighboring farmers. Seed coatings are pervasive and persistent, posing an ongoing threat to the health and productivity of bees, and, in most cases, they present very little real benefit to farmers.”

The court’s ruling on sulfoxaflor should be signal to EPA that it’s time to go back to the drawing board and revamp its plan to protect bees from harmful pesticides. It’s proposed new rules are myopic and they continue to fast-track harmful pesticides to market. They must do better.

Picture of Paul Towers

Paul Towers

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