Bees Win Big in Court, EPA's Approval of Toxic Pesticide Overturned
A federal court has overturned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) approval of sulfoxaflor, a pesticide linked to the mass die-off of honeybees that pollinate a third of the world’s food supply.
A federal appeals court overturns the government’s approval of a powerful new pesticide linked to the killing of honeybees. Photo credit: Shutterstock
The three-judge panel said the EPA green-lit sulfoxaflor even though initial studies showed the product was highly toxic to pollinators such as bees. The chemical compound belongs to a class of insecticides, known as neonicotinoids, that scientific studies have implicated in bee deaths.
“Because the EPA’s decision to unconditionally register sulfoxaflor was based on flawed and limited data, we conclude that the unconditional approval was not supported by substantial evidence,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit panel wrote in its opinion.
In her opinion, Judge Mary M. Schroeder wrote that the EPA had initially decided to conditionally approve the chemical but ordered more studies done to better understand the effects the systemic insecticide would have on bees.
“A few months later, however, the EPA unconditionally registered the insecticides with certain mitigation measures and a lowering of the maximum application rate,” Schroeder wrote. “It did so without obtaining any further studies.”
The product, sold in the U.S. as Transform or Closer, must be pulled from store shelves by Oct. 18.
Gregory Loarie, lead counsel for environmental group Earthjustice, which represented beekeepers and beekeeping groups in the case, said the ruling could lead to reviews of other EPA-approved pesticides.
“The EPA rarely, if ever, has reliable information regarding the impact that insecticides have on honeybee colonies writ large, as opposed to individual, adult worker bees,” Loarie said in an email. “With the findings in this case, EPA should move quickly to re-examine other registrations for possible flawed and limited data.”
Sulfoxaflor, created by Indianapolis-based Dow AgroSciences, is a systemic insecticide. When it’s sprayed on soybean, cotton, citrus, fruit and vegetable crops, it kills bugs on contact and is also absorbed into the plant’s flowers, stems and roots. When insects ingest any part of the plant, they die too.
Paul Towers, spokesperson for advocacy group Pesticide Action Network, said that because sulfoxaflor was only approved in 2013, it hasn’t been widely used. “The prospect of greater use loomed, especially as other neonicotinoids are under increased scrutiny and pressure for phase-out,” Towers said.
That phase-out already has started in Europe; EU member nations banned three neonicotinoids in 2013 for two years after the chemicals were linked to the dramatic decline in bee populations there.
“This is the classic pesticide industry shell game,” Towers said. “As more science underscores the harms of a pesticide, they shift to newer, less studied products. And it takes regulators years to catch up.”
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By Christina Gish Hill
Historians know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanksgiving, when Wampanoag peoples shared a harvest meal with the pilgrims of Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts. And traditional Native American farming practices tell us that squash and beans likely were part of that 1621 dinner too.
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Displaced From the Land<p>As Euro-Americans settled permanently on the most fertile North American lands and acquired seeds that Native growers had carefully bred, they imposed policies that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/87.2.550" target="_blank">made Native farming practices impossible</a>. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the <a href="https://guides.loc.gov/indian-removal-act" target="_blank">Indian Removal Act</a>, which made it official U.S. policy to force Native peoples from their home locations, pushing them onto subpar lands.</p><p>On reservations, U.S. government officials discouraged Native women from cultivating anything larger than small garden plots and pressured Native men to practice Euro-American style monoculture. Allotment policies assigned small plots to nuclear families, further limiting Native Americans' access to land and preventing them from using communal farming practices.</p><p>Native children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they had no opportunity to <a href="https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.57.1.0145" target="_blank">learn Native agriculture techniques or preservation and preparation of Indigenous foods</a>. Instead they were forced to eat Western foods, turning their palates away from their traditional preferences. Taken together, these policies <a href="https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-0802-7.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">almost entirely eradicated three sisters agriculture</a> from Native communities in the Midwest by the 1930s.</p>
Reviving Native Agriculture<p>Today Native people all over the U.S. are working diligently to <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reclaim Indigenous varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and other crops</a>. This effort is important for many reasons.</p><p>Improving Native people's access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods will help lower rates of <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aian-diabetes/index.html" target="_blank">diabetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/native-american/obesity" target="_blank">obesity</a>, which affect Native Americans at disproportionately high rates. Sharing traditional knowledge about agriculture is a way for elders to pass cultural information along to younger generations. Indigenous growing techniques also protect the lands that Native nations now inhabit, and can potentially benefit the wider ecosystems around them.</p>
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