More than 40 percent of insects could go extinct globally in the next few decades. So why did the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week OK the 'emergency' use of the bee-killing pesticide sulfoxaflor on 13.9 million acres?
EcoWatch teamed up with Center for Biological Diversity via EcoWatch Live on Facebook to find out why. Environmental Health Director and Senior Attorney Lori Ann Burd explained how there is a loophole in the The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act under section 18, "that allows for entities and states to request emergency exemptions to spraying pesticides where they otherwise wouldn't be allowed to spray."
Agricultural spraying. Marcos Alves / Moment Open<p><em>Correction: A previous version of this article used the above photo of agricultural spraying as headline image. Headline image has been updated for clarity.</em></p>
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By Sue Branford and Thais Borges
With the ruralist lobby now in control of key sectors of the federal government, Brazil is rapidly approving new pesticides for use, some of which critics say are either unnecessary or excessively toxic. During the first 100 days of the Jair Bolsonaro administration, the Agriculture Ministry authorized the registration of 152 pesticides, putting Brazil on course to authorize more pesticides this year than in any previous year. Brazil is already the world's largest user of pesticides.
An employee from Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources surveys a heap of emptied pesticide containers on a farm.
IBAMA / Mongabay
Pro-Pesticide Government vs. Environmentalists<p>Despite the rapid rise in authorizations, Bolsonaro's agriculture minister, Tereza Cristina, said "<a href="https://deolhonosruralistas.com.br/2019/04/10/no-centesimo-dia-governo-autoriza-mais-31-agrotoxicos-metade-deles-extremamente-toxicos/" target="_blank">there is no general liberation</a>" of new pesticide registrations. According to her ministry, the products will merely give farmers a greater choice of existing pesticides, and access to new chemicals and there is <a href="https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2019/01/22/politica/1548111806_421640.html" target="_blank">no reason to be concerned</a>: "The use [of pesticides] is completely safe, provided they are applied as instructed, within a context of good farming practice and with the use of individual protective equipment," said the government.</p><p>Events within Brazil seem to deny the truth of Cristina's claims. Brazil has a <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2018/02/brazils-fundamental-pesticide-law-under-attack/" target="_blank">higher per capita consumption of pesticides</a> than any other country in the world — 7.3 liters per year per person — and it is already facing a serious problem with <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2018/08/brazils-pesticide-poisoning-problem-poses-global-dilemma-say-critics/" target="_blank">pesticide intoxication</a>.</p><p>According to Guilherme Franco Netto, an Environment, Health and Sustainability Specialist at the <a href="https://portal.fiocruz.br/en" target="_blank">Oswaldo Cruz Foundation</a>, one of the world's top public health research institutions, about 100,000 cases of intoxication are recorded in Brazil each year. According to Alan Tygel, from the Permanent Campaign Against Pesticides and for Life, <a href="https://www.brasildefato.com.br/2019/04/03/desde-o-golpe-contra-dilma-12-mil-novos-agrotoxicos-foram-liberados-no-brasil/" target="_blank">this figure seriously underestimates</a> the real situation, as many rural workers fail to report pesticide intoxications.</p><img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTQ0MTk5MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNDgwOTczMn0.OXZ7eq4pTu-I7g7GLx_SESdd6eUOLBtoyrAts1Uty5g/img.jpg?width=980" id="1b634" width="600" height="672" data-rm-shortcode-id="9f7da0d9acbef4d39f374414ebc6dc52" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Brazil: Pesticide Poisonings in Rural Areas<p>In July 2018, the human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, <a href="https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/07/20/brazil-pesticide-poisonings-rural-areas" target="_blank">published a report</a> documenting acute intoxication at seven locations in Brazil, including indigenous communities, schools and quilombolas — communities of runaway slave descendants.</p><p>"Pesticides sprayed in large plantations intoxicate children in schoolrooms in many parts of Brazil," said <a href="https://www.hrw.org/about/people/richard-pearshouse" target="_blank">Richard Pearshouse</a>, assistant director of the environmental and human rights division of Human Rights Watch. But the report found that many local inhabitants were too frightened to speak out. </p><p>In five of the seven impacted communities, people said they were afraid of suffering reprisals if they complained. In 2010 a rural farmer <a href="https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/07/20/you-dont-want-breathe-poison-anymore/failing-response-pesticide-drift-brazils" target="_blank">was shot dead</a> after putting pressure on local government to forbid aerial spraying of pesticides — a common application practice in Brazil, even though it allows wind-carried toxic sprays to settle far from crops in surrounding communities and natural areas.</p><div id="216f1" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9UT36P1576661817"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1020232207225573376" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Brazil: Pesticide Poisonings in Rural Areas https://t.co/bWoQmksz4L</div> — Human Rights Watch (@Human Rights Watch)<a href="https://twitter.com/hrw/statuses/1020232207225573376">1532077287.0</a></blockquote></div>
New Formulations Raise Alarms<p>Many of the requests given the go-ahead this year are for new formulations of already authorized pesticides."Once the initial manufacturer loses its patent, other companies start requesting registration so they can use the [same] active ingredients to produce new agricultural products," <a href="https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2019/01/22/politica/1548111806_421640.html" target="_blank">said</a> Murilo Souza, from the State University of Goiás.</p><p>Leonardo Melgarejo, vice-president of the Brazilian Association of Agroecology, <a href="https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2019/01/22/politica/1548111806_421640.html" target="_blank">believes</a> that this practice is harmful as it will inevitably lead to a big increase in consumption nationwide. "We are approving several variations of the same pesticide," he said. "We're heading for a situation in which farmers will be able to 'self-medicate,' with two pesticide shops on every block." Little research has been done to see how hundreds of various pesticides might interact to become more damaging.</p><p>The torrent of new approvals is also making it easier for Brazil's farmers to gain access to toxic pesticides with which the global community has serious concern. One such case is that of 2,4-D, an active ingredient in controversial defoliant Agent Orange, used by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and whose use is increasingly being controlled in other countries, after the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer classified it in 2015 as "<a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-un-herbicides-2-4-d/who-unit-finds-24-d-herbicide-possibly-causes-cancer-in-humans-idUSKBN0P22FK20150623" target="_blank">possibly carcinogenic to humans</a>."</p>
Monsanto Lasso herbicide to be sprayed on food crops showing proper protective gear.
Controversial Pesticides Approved for First Time in Brazil<p>Several of the pesticides authorized this year will be entirely new to Brazil. Some have already been classified by Brazil's National Health Surveillance Agency as "<a href="https://deolhonosruralistas.com.br/2019/04/10/no-centesimo-dia-governo-autoriza-mais-31-agrotoxicos-metade-deles-extremamente-toxicos/" target="_blank">extremely toxic</a>." These include: mancozeb, a broad-spectrum fungicide used in agriculture and horticulture; the fungicide fluazinam; and the insecticide chlorpyrifos. In 2018 the Pest Management Regulatory Agency <a href="https://www.realagriculture.com/2018/06/mancozeb-latest-pesticide-to-face-significant-restrictions-following-re-evaluation/" target="_blank">banned the use</a> of mancozeb in Canada, except for foliar use on potatoes, due to "unacceptable risks to human health." The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/09/us/politics/chlorpyrifos-pesticide-ban-epa-court.html" target="_blank">banned the use</a> of chlorpyrifos in 2018 after its use had been associated with development disabilities in children.</p><p>One particularly controversial newly approved chemical is sulfoxaflor. This pesticide was one of several believed to have caused an outbreak in Brazil of colony collapse disorder — the catastrophic sudden disappearance of worker bees from a bee colony, leading to the death of hives. <a href="https://reporterbrasil.org.br/2019/03/apicultores-brasileiros-encontram-meio-bilhao-de-abelhas-mortas-em-tres-meses/?fbclid=IwAR2zaBCsYwVaoATgcPnAJJCx9FMCZ6U2YMaqSR6GncNT4DSQTZyLUrSnFmQ" target="_blank">According to a survey</a> carried out by Agência Pública and Repórter Brasil, half a billion bees were found dead in four Brazilian states in the first quarter of 2019 — a staggeringly large die off posing a threat to the pollination of fruits and vegetables and to native vegetation.</p>
Pesticide Deregulation in the Works<p>Environmental activist Alan Tygel <a href="https://www.brasildefato.com.br/2019/04/03/desde-o-golpe-contra-dilma-12-mil-novos-agrotoxicos-foram-liberados-no-brasil/" target="_blank">believes</a> that the rapid rise in the number of pesticide authorizations is directly linked to the growing power of the <em>bancada ruralista</em> agribusiness lobby in Congress. This lobby, he said, made its support for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 dependent on government backing for pro-agribusiness measures. "From then on, the counterweight that came from progressive sectors, from family farming and from agroecology, was lost, and today the ruralist agenda faces fewer obstacles in its drive to have more pesticides approved and to push through more permissive laws," Tygel <a href="https://www.brasildefato.com.br/2019/04/03/desde-o-golpe-contra-dilma-12-mil-novos-agrotoxicos-foram-liberados-no-brasil/" target="_blank">said.</a> The Bolsonaro presidential campaign greatly benefited from ruralist support, and it greatly helped sweep the former Army captain and legislator to victory last October.</p><p>The next goal of the ruralist agenda — more permissive laws — may well get a major boost this year with congressional approval of <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2018/02/brazils-fundamental-pesticide-law-under-attack/" target="_blank">PL 6299/2002</a>, dubbed as the "poison package" by critics. The legislation, which would greatly deregulate pesticides, was endorsed by a Chamber of Deputies commission in June 2018 and it now awaits plenary debate. The Temer government <a href="https://www.cartacapital.com.br/blogs/brasil-debate/entenda-os-2-projetos-sobre-alimentos-que-tramitam-no-congresso" target="_blank">justified the bill</a>, presented to Congress by then Agriculture Minister and dedicated ruralist, <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2017/07/soy-king-blairo-maggi-wields-power-over-amazons-fate-say-critics/" target="_blank">Blairo Maggi</a>, claiming that the country desperately needed to simplify the complicated process of getting new pesticides authorized in order to help farmers.</p><p>But Castro Moreira, president of the prestigious <a href="http://www.sbpcnet.org.br/site/en/a-sbpc/about-us.php" target="_blank">Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science</a>, representing more than 100 scientific societies, disagreed strongly. He <a href="http://portal.sbpcnet.org.br/noticias/sbpc-repudia-aprovacao-do-pacote-do-veneno-na-comissao-especial-da-camara/" target="_blank">said</a> at the time that the bill, "could have very serious consequences for the health of the Brazilian population and the environment … Its approval would be a backward step, because it follows the logic of mechanized agriculture, with high investments in fertilizers and pesticides, which is an outmoded way of thinking, dating from the end of the Second World War."</p>
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As evidence builds that neonicotinoids harm bees and other pollinators and bodies like the EU move to ban them, the agricultural sector is casting about for something to replace what is currently the most-used type of insecticide worldwide.
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has routinely been allowing use of unapproved pesticides under the pretext of an "emergency" when no actual emergency exists, according to an analysis released Monday by the Center for Biological Diversity.
The abuse of the emergency provision has created a loophole allowing the widespread use of unapproved pesticides, year after year, across millions of acres in ways that are either known to be harmful to wildlife or haven't been tested to be safe.
Friday's preliminary ruling by an administrative court in Nice cited environmental risks of the pesticide sulfoxaflor. The decision overturned a ruling by ANSES, the French agency for health and environment.
By Laura Beans
Last week, the beekeeping industry filed legal action against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for approving a new bee-harming pesticide.
According to Beyond Pesticides, the petitioners—including the National Pollinator Defense Fund, American Honey Producers Association, National Honey Bee Advisory Board, the American Beekeeping Federation, and beekeepers Bret Adee, Jeff Anderson and Thomas R. Smith—filed the suit in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Despite evidence about the harms of the new pesticide, and research questions left unanswered, in May, the EPA approved the full registration of sulfoxaflor. The active ingredient is similar to that of neonicotinoid; it acts on the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor in insects and causes similarly harmful impacts on bees' brains.
Comments were submitted to the EPA by concerned beekeepers and environmental advocacy groups, stating that approval of a pesticide highly toxic to bees would only exacerbate the problems faced by the honey bee industry and further decimate bee populations, which has already reported unparallelled lows across the globe.
However, according to Pesticide Action Network, the EPA dismissed these concerns outrightly and instead pointed to a need for sulfoxaflor by industry and agriculture groups to control insects resistant to pesticide technologies. The EPA is unable (or unwilling) to act decisively to protect bees, and has instead fast-tracked the new pesticide to market.
"The EPA is charged with preventing unreasonable risk to our livestock, our livelihoods and most importantly, the nation’s food supply," said Bret Adee, a beekeeper at Adee Honey Farms with operations in South Dakota and California—and a petitioner on the case. "This situation requires an immediate correction from the EPA to ensure the survival of commercial pollinators, native pollinators and the plentiful supply of seed, fruits, vegetables and nuts that pollinators make possible."
The suit is filed on the heels of several recently publicized mass bee die-offs. Last month in Oregon, 50,000 bumblebees were found dead after a cosmetic application of dinotefuran—a neonicotinoid pesticide—was applied to ornamental trees while they were in flower. In Canada last week, 37 million bees were found dead in Elmwood, Ontario. Current estimates of the number of surviving hives in the U.S. show that these colonies may not be able to meet the pollination demands of agricultural crops.
With reports to the contrary, the EPA says that none of the objections to sulfoxaflor point to any data “to support the opinion that registration of sulfoxaflor will pose a grave risks to bees,” even though the agency itself acknowledges that sulfoxaflor is highly toxic to bees. The EPA downplayed the effects of sulfoxaflor—which include behavioral and navigational abnormalities in honey bees—as “short-lived.”
The groups are being represented by the public interest law organization Earthjustice. The appeal process through the courts is the only mechanism open to challenge EPA’s decision.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.