Pesticide-Coated Seeds Are the Focus of a New Push for EPA Regulations | Civil Eats

Pesticide-Coated Seeds Are the Focus of a New Push for EPA Regulations

Also in this week’s Field Report, a deeper look at the global fertilizer cartel, and the political battle over SNAP continues.

A farmer plants corn on a farm near Dwight, Illinois (Photo credit: Scott Olson, Getty Images)

A farmer plants corn on a farm near Dwight, Illinois (Photo credit: Scott Olson, Getty Images)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) failure to effectively regulate seeds coated with highly toxic pesticides violates federal pesticide laws and is devastating pollinators, wildlife, and landscapes across the country, according to environmental groups who filed a lawsuit last week.

“Crucially, there’s mounting evidence from various studies of the harms that are happening directly from the use of neonics on coated seeds,” says Amy van Saun of Center for Food Safety (CFS), one of the lead attorneys on the case.

“Neonics,” short for neonicotinoids, are insecticides that are already registered under the federal law that controls pesticide use. During registration, the EPA assesses a pesticide’s ingredients, how and where it will be used, and risks associated with the proposed use, and then determines labeling requirements. The EPA has long argued that regulation is enough for neonics, but unlike other pesticides, which are primarily sprayed on crops, the vast majority of neonic use involves companies coating seeds before they’re planted.

And those seeds are not registered as pesticides.

Farmers now plant pesticide-coated seeds on more than 100 million cropland acres across the country; some estimate that 80 to 100 percent of corn acreage is planted with treated seed. As they grow, plants absorb some of the chemical coating, making their tissues toxic to pests. However, most of the coating—at least 90 percent—sloughs off the seeds, contaminating surrounding vegetation, soil, and waterways.

A Civil Eats investigation last year following an environmental disaster in Mead, Nebraska, also found that the EPA is not regulating what happens to unused, expired coated seeds. The chemical coating can make its way into the environment during the disposal process, too.

As a result, many experts and advocates consider the fact that seeds are not registered as pesticides to be a loophole in the law. In 2017, CFS and Pesticide Action Network North America filed a petition asking EPA to close it. In 2021, the agency denied the petition. In response, the groups filed last week’s lawsuit.

And in the years since the initial 2017 petition, evidence for how neonicotinoids harm pollinators and disrupt the functioning of entire ecosystems has continued to pile up. Last June, the EPA’s own evaluations found that the three most commonly used neonicotinoids are “likely to adversely affect” up to 75 percent of endangered species in the U.S. and also threaten habitats critical to many species’ survival.

Then, last month, the agency released an analysis reiterating the likely harm to more than 1,000 species, including bats, butterflies, cranes, and turtles. For more than 200 of those species, the EPA found, the chemicals pose an existential threat.

All of that evidence will be considered during a registration review of the chemicals due by 2026. In the meantime, if the environmental groups win this case in court, a few key things will change, van Saun explains.

EPA officials would have to more thoroughly consider how the seeds are impacting the environment and could propose mitigation measures. Coated seeds would also be subject to more serious labeling requirements that detail both proper use and disposal. And most significantly, during the registration process, the agency would have to directly apply its pesticide cost-benefit analysis to each seed product.

“If they’re going to register a product, say a certain corn seed coated with clothianidin,

they’d have to look at the adverse effects and weigh them against the supposed benefits,” van Saun says. “And a lot of what we’ve seen . . . is that some of the benefits are nonexistent.”

For example, one 2020 analysis done in New York found that while fruit and vegetable farmers spraying neonics often had few other options to control threats to their crops, farmers planting corn and soybean seeds coated with neonics realized little to no yield or income benefits as a result.

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“So [the EPA] would have to weigh all of the harms, which are so obvious now, against little to no benefit. And that would mean that hopefully a lot of the products wouldn’t meet the safety standard of ‘not causing unreasonable adverse effects to the environment,’ and therefore wouldn’t be registered at all,” van Saun says. “That would, of course, be our hope—that there would be a really big reduction of this use.”

Read More:
Beyond Bees, Neonics Damage Ecosystems—and a Push for Policy Change Is Coming
When Seeds Become Toxic Waste
What the Insect Crisis Means for Food, Farming, and Humanity

Hunger Politics. While the debt ceiling showdown is over, it now appears that lawmakers will continue to debate expanding work requirements within the country’s largest federal food assistance program as part of ongoing farm bill negotiations. After considerable back and forth, last week’s final deal to avert government default included both increasing the age limit to include more people in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) work requirements and exempting specific groups, including veterans and individuals experiencing homelessness.

The Congressional Budget Office predicted that the changes would actually increase spending on SNAP—despite Republicans’ claims that they would save money—although some experts and hunger groups disputed the agency’s findings.

Earlier in the process, some lawmakers indicated that negotiating the requirements during the debt ceiling process would settle the issue before they turned their attention to the farm bill; Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) said the conversation was “done.” However, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-California) treated the negotiation as a starting point, saying, “Let’s get the rest of the work requirements.”

More clarity on the path ahead should emerge during a House Agriculture Committee hearing scheduled for today.

In a statement expressing opposition to SNAP cuts included in the debt ceiling bill, Lisa Davis, senior vice president of anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength and the No Kid Hungry campaign, said she was concerned that the legislation “codifies a shift in the purpose of SNAP to be a program that prioritizes penalties and time limits, not improving nutrition outcomes.”

“We shouldn’t be playing politics with programs that help Americans meet their basic needs,” Davis added.

Read More:
Former SNAP Recipient Calls for Expanded Benefits in Next Farm Bill
This Farm Bill Really Matters. We Explain Why.
States Are Fighting to Bring Back Free School Meals

Fertilizer Cartel? Families struggling to put food on the table may get some relief this month as food inflation has finally begun to cool off over the last several months. But a new report calls attention to one under-the-radar contributor to the high prices that have been hurting Americans for the last several years: fertilizer companies.

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The analysis, by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, found that the world’s biggest fertilizer companies increased their total profits and profit margins exponentially over the last two years. During this time frame, farmers struggled to pay high prices for fertilizer, and those input costs drove up prices for consumers, increasing food insecurity.

Between 2020 and 2022, the top nine companies quadrupled their profits, and their profit margins increased by about 15 percent. It’s yet another data snapshot that contributes to a growing picture of how corporate profiteering has fueled inflation under the guise of supply chain disruptions caused by factors including COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine.

To that end, industry publication Poultry World this week shared a detailed analysis of how the avian flu outbreak impacted the egg industry during 2022 and how much its effects were linked to rising egg prices. The analysis showed the complexity of teasing out factors that drive price increases.

For example, avian flu killed 44 million egg-laying hens in 2022, with major losses in specific states including Colorado and Iowa. And the prices companies paid at the farm gate rose exponentially throughout the year. But throughout the country, egg production only dropped 1.7 percent, while retail egg prices increased more than 200 percent.

Read More:
Food Prices Are Still High. What Role Do Corporate Profits Play?
Op-Ed: Food Price Spikes Are About a Lot More Than Ukraine

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. Cathleen Caffreyc
    I wish you would include petitions we could send to main organizations discussed. Can't afford to contribute much but DO sign petitions. For example, I have no idea who to contact/how find petitions/letters re pesticides on seeds..

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