Lawsuit Challenges Regulation of Neonicotinoids

American Bird Conservancy has joined with beekeepers, farmers, and public interest groups in filing a lawsuit alleging insufficient federal regulation of a dangerous class of pesticide that is deadly to birds, bees, and other wildlife.

The lawsuit, filed last week by Center for Food Safety on behalf of several beekeepers, farmers and sustainable agriculture and conservation groups, challenges the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) inadequate regulation of the neonicotinoid insecticide seed coatings used on dozens of crops. EPA has allowed millions of pounds of coated seeds to be planted annually on more than 150 million acres nationwide.

Bobolink, Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

Bobolink and other birds that eat seeds are affected by neonicotinoid insecticides. A single seed coated with the insecticide can kill a songbird. Photo by Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

The lawsuit alleges the agency has illegally allowed this to occur, without requiring the coated seeds to be registered under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), without enforceable labels on the seed bags, and without adequate assessments of the serious ongoing environmental harm.

“A single seed coated with a neonicotinoid insecticide is enough to kill a songbird,” said ABC's Cynthia Palmer, director of pesticides science and regulation. “There is no justification for EPA to exempt these pesticide delivery devices from regulation. American Bird Conservancy urges the agency to evaluate the risks to birds, bees, butterflies, and other wildlife.”

A 2013 study by ABC, The Impact of the Nation's Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds,” found that neonicotinoids are toxic to birds and invertebrates, even in small quantities, and they persist in soils for months and even years. Because of this effect on invertebrates, use of neonics impacts not just seed-eating birds like Bobolink but also insect-eating species including Common Nighthawk and Purple Martin.

‘Destructive Consequences' for Wildlife, Water, and Soil

The agency's actions surrounding neonicotinoid seed coatings “have led to intensifying and destructive consequences,” said Peter Jenkins, attorney with Center for Food Safety. These include honey bee die-offs, as well as chronic effects to numerous species, nationwide water and soil contamination, and other environmental and economic harms, he said. “This lawsuit aims to hold EPA accountable to dramatically reduce this harm in the future.”

Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides known to be lethal to honey bees and other pollinator species, and are considered a major factor in overall bee population declines and poor health. Up to 95 percent of the applied seed coating ends up in the surrounding air, soil, and water rather than in the crop for which it was intended, leading to extensive contamination.

Western Meadowlarks, Maria Jeffs/Shutterstock

A 2013 study by ABC found that neonicotinoids are toxic to birds including Western Meadowlarks (above), even in small quantities. Photo by Maria Jeffs/Shutterstock

“As a beekeeper for over 50 years, I have lost more colonies of honey bees in the last ten years from the after effects of neonic seed coatings than all others causes over the first 40 plus years of my beekeeping operation,” said beekeeper David Hackenberg, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “This not only affects my honey bees, but as a farmer it also affects my land and the health of my soil. It is time for EPA to accept the responsibility to protect not only our honey bees and other pollinators, but also our soil and our environment.”

A Call to Prevent Future Harm

The cost-effectiveness of neonicotinoid seed coatings has been challenged in recent years, with numerous studies indicating that their near ubiquitous use is unnecessary—and making EPA's disregard of their risks all the more harmful. Along with honey bees, wild bees and other beneficial insects are in serious decline, leading to reduced yields. Overuse of the insecticides threatens sustainable agriculture going forward.

Dickcissel, Paul Sparks/Shutterstock

ABC and other groups are urging the EPA to evaluate the risks of neonics to birds (such as Dickcissel, above), bees, butterflies, and other wildlife. Photo by Paul Sparks/Shutterstock

"EPA can't bury its head in the sand any longer. Seed coatings are just the latest delivery device of pesticide corporations that pose a threat to pollinators and the food system," said Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network. "Given widespread use and persistence of these bee-harming pesticides, it's time for EPA to fully and swiftly evaluate the impacts of seed coatings—and prevent future harm.”

Learn more about how ABC reduces the deadly impact of pesticides on birds.