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Protecting Our Food, Farms & Environment
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Pacific Northwest
Hawai'i CFS

Suing to Protect Pollinators

by Amy van Saun, Senior Attorney

June 22, 2023
Center for Food Safety

One of every three bites of food we eat comes from a crop pollinated by bees. This bee-powered nourishment includes apples, blueberries, tomatoes, bananas, avocados, cashews, and almonds–a harvest of more than 130 fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Yet, all this is imperiled by a severe decline of bees and other pollinators worldwide. 

A shocking new study just found that mass pollinator loss has already caused half a million early human deaths a year by drastically reducing the global supply of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Between April 2018 to April 2019, the managed bee population in the U.S. decreased by a stunning 40.7%, which experts call "unsustainable."

Why is there such a crisis with these vital spark plugs of our food and fiber? An overwhelming number of scientific studies link these bee declines to pesticides, demonstrating the far-reaching impacts toxic chemical pesticides have on our environment. These bee-harmful pesticides have many long-term detrimental effects and pose an increased risk to fragile ecosystems.

The pesticides most directly linked to pollinator declines are a group of systemic insecticides called neonicotinoids. These "neonics," as they're often called, are the most widely used insecticides in the world. Unlike traditional pesticides, which are typically applied to plant surfaces, neonics are systemic—meaning they are absorbed and transported through all parts of the plant tissue. 

Honey bees and other pollinators are exposed to these toxic chemicals through pollen, nectar, dust, dew droplets on plant leaves, and in the soil where many native bee species nest. Modeled after nicotine, neonicotinoids interfere with insects' nervous systems, causing tremors, paralysis, and eventually, death. Neonicotinoids are so toxic that one corn seed treated with them contains enough insecticide to kill over 80,000 honey bees.

Neonicotinoids are especially dangerous because they persist in the environment and can accumulate quickly–causing contamination of surface water, groundwater, and soil, endangering species that inhabit these ecosystems. This contamination has created widespread harm to aquatic invertebrates, such as mollusks and crustaceans, both vital to aquatic habitats; and evidence shows neonics have potential long-term impacts on waterfowl, rangeland birds, and other wild animals.

Imagine a world with no apples, melons, squash, broccoli or almonds. Three quarters of the crops we consume rely on pollinators, and if we're going to save them from extinction, scientists agree–we must ban the pesticides largely responsible for their demise. 

Unfortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)–which was created to protect our health and the environment from chemicals such as pesticides–continues to approve and register pesticides that are known to harm and kill pollinators such as bees and butterflies. 

Last June, a federal court ruled that EPA's reapproval of glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, was unlawful for all uses. It even rebuked the agency for ignoring real-world evidence of cancer risks from glyphosate, and for failing to consider impacts to endangered species. While the court ordered EPA to redo its human health and ecological risk assessments by October 2022, the agency blew its deadline and now says it won't complete this vital review until 2026.  Meanwhile, pollinators will continue to suffer harm from this toxic pesticide, one of the most widely sprayed in the U.S. and the world.

Equally disturbing is the ongoing proliferation of unregulated pesticide-coated seeds, which are quietly decimating our bees, birds, and butterflies. Just one GMO corn seed coated with neonicotinoid pesticides contains enough pesticide to kill over 80,000 bees or one songbird. Pesticide giants like Monsanto have been selling these deadly seeds with no safety testing or regulation for decades. Now, almost half of all U.S. farmland is planted with pesticide-coated seeds. And despite a Center for Food Safety petition to EPA and our subsequent lawsuit against EPA for denying that petition, the agency refuses to regulate these seeds. Without regulation under national pesticide laws, there is no balancing of the vast harms they cause against their minimal or nonexistent benefit, and for those that may be allowed, there are no instructions to the farmers planting them about how to mitigate impacts or safely dispose of unused seed. With the vast majority of neonic use going to seed coatings, it is illogical and unlawful for EPA not to uphold its duty to protect our environment and people from this unnecessary pesticide use. 

The list of EPA failures goes on. Use of a little known super-pesticide made from one of the same ingredients as Agent Orange is skyrocketing across the United States. Now sold under the name Enlist, it threatens hundreds of endangered species and is linked to Parkinson's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and other reproductive problems in humans. The pesticide industry's excuse for this revival of an old and dangerous pesticide is the widespread resistance of weeds to the pesticide Roundup. This resistance stems from Monsanto's push to convert all commodity crops (like corn, soy, and canola) to genetically engineered, glyphosate-resistant varieties — encouraging the indiscriminate spraying of glyphosate upon them. Natural evolution of weeds means development of a resistance to glyphosate, and the chemical companies are now trotting out older, deadlier chemicals to deal with the problem of their own creation. Despite these deadly risks, in 2022 EPA reapproved Enlist for seven more years. 

While there are many tactics being used to stop toxic pesticides and protect pollinators and other species, courts are one of the best–and sometimes only–hope for creating meaningful change on the ground. Often, the only way to halt corporations from using toxic chemicals, and usurping democracy and regulatory integrity, is through litigation. 

To save these essential pollinators, habitats, and biodiversity, we must continue to take these corporations–and the government agencies created to regulate them–to court. We all eat, and we all rely on honeybees and other pollinators to create and sustain our food supply. It is a moral and ecological imperative that we do everything possible to sustain them.

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