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Beekeepers, farmers, agriculture groups claim EPA’s ‘inadequate’ regulation of insecticide seed coatings is costing them

By Jessica Karmasek | Jan 14, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) - A group of beekeepers, farmers and public interest organizations are suing the Environmental Protection Agency and its administrator for their alleged “inadequate” regulation of neonicotinoid insecticide seed coatings used on dozens of crops.

The plaintiffs -- Bret Adee, Jeff Anderson, Lucas Criswell, Gail Fuller, David Hackenberg, the American Bird Conservancy, the Center for Food Safety, the Pesticide Action Network of North America and the Pollinator Stewardship Council -- filed their complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California Jan. 6.

The San Francisco-based Center for Food Safety is serving as counsel for the plaintiffs.

The named defendants include the EPA and Administrator Gina McCarthy. As administrator, McCarthy is charged with overseeing the agency’s implementation of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA. The act governs pesticide commercialization and application in the United States.

The plaintiffs argue in their 31-page complaint that the agency has allowed the ongoing sale and use of unregistered pesticide products in violation of both the FIFRA and Administrative Procedure Act, or APA.

“The EPA’s actions and inactions have caused both acute honey bee kills and chronic effects leading to excess bee colony mortality, excess bird mortality, nationwide water and soil contamination, and other environmental and economic harms, thereby severely damaging Plaintiff beekeepers’ businesses, also damaging the land and welfare of Plaintiff farmers, and damaging the interests of the Plaintiff non-profit groups,” the lawsuit states.

According to the Center for Food Safety, neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides known to have acute and chronic effects on honey bees and other pollinator species and are considered a “major factor” in overall bee population declines and poor health.

In theory, the applied seed coatings, as opposed to spray pesticides, are more effective, safer and accurate. In spraying, some crops can be missed or the pesticides may blow in the wind to surrounding crops and areas.

However, the Center for Food Safety contends that up to 95 percent of the applied seed coatings ends up in the surrounding air, soil and water rather than in the crop for which it was intended, leading to “extensive” contamination.

Anderson, the lead plaintiff in the case, has been the owner of California Minnesota Honey Farms for 19 years. It is a migratory beekeeping operation based in Eagle Bend, Minn., and Oakdale, Calif.

In the complaint, Anderson -- who has been a commercial beekeeper since 1976 -- says since about 2004-05, his percentage of hives lost each year has increased “dramatically.”

In 2012, for example, he claims he had 3,150 hives in April, but by February 2013, he was down to just 998 hives -- meaning he lost almost 70 percent of hives that year.

“Not only is Mr. Anderson losing hives at rates that are unprecedented, but remaining hives are far less robust,” the lawsuit states. “It is plain from recent years that he is getting significant summer mortality -- a time when bee populations should be healthy due to warm weather, long days, and food abundance -- from the dominant Minnesota crops: corn and soybeans.

“It is virtually impossible for honey bees to avoid these crops in central Minnesota; nearly all of them are seed-treated with a combination of two neonicotinoid pesticides, clothianidin and thiamethoxam.”

Anderson said in a statement that his honey farm business is not capable of surviving another three to five years if the EPA does not start properly regulating the pesticides.

“People need pollinated food; somebody must stand up and say no to unregulated killing of pollinators,” he said.

The complaint seeks to enjoin the EPA “from allowing any new unregistered neonicotinoid-coated seeds of any crops” and “from allowing any new unregistered seeds of any crops if they are coated with other systemic insecticides that cause pesticidal effects extending beyond the coated seed and plant itself.”

The plaintiffs ask the federal court to declare the agency’s action of exempting the seed coatings from FIFRA registration unlawful, and that seeds coated with neonicotinoids do not fit within the “treated article” exemption and must be regulated as pesticidal products under FIFRA.

“The EPA can’t bury its head in the sand any longer,” said Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network. “Seed coatings are just the latest delivery device of pesticide corporations that pose a threat to pollinators and the food system.

“Given widespread use and persistence of these bee-harming pesticides, it’s time for the EPA to fully and swiftly evaluate the impacts of seed coatings -- and prevent future harm.”

The groups contend that numerous studies in recent years have shown that the “near ubiquitous” use of the seed coatings is unnecessary.

They also argue that the continued overuse of the insecticides threatens sustainable agriculture going forward.

“Farmers rely on the crop pollination services of beekeepers to increase the yield of their crops,” said Michele Colopy, program director at the Pollinator Stewardship Council. “Farmers need clear, concise pesticide label guidelines in order to protect their crops and protect honey bees.

“Healthy relationships between soil and water, beekeepers and farmers, and beneficial insects and crops are essential to an affordable and sustainable food supply.”

The EPA said in an emailed statement to Legal Newsline that it “will review the lawsuit and respond appropriately.”

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at

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