Honey bees and other pollinators can breathe a less toxic breath of fresh air after a federal appeals court ruled against the Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of sulfoxaflor, a particularly troublesome pesticide produced by Dow AgroSciences.
In 2013, the EPA approved sulfoxaflor, a member of the controversial neonicotinoid class of pesticides. Dow AgroSciences boasted its merits as addressing a “$2 billion market need currently unmet by biotech solutions.”
Dow markets sulfoxaflor as a foliar spray for use on crops including citrus, cotton, grapes, soybeans, stone fruits, nuts, strawberries, and potatoes.
But U.S. beekeepers petitioned the EPA to withdraw the approval for the pesticide, claiming that the agency’s own research found sulfoxaflor to be "highly toxic to honey bees, and other insect pollinators."
The court’s ruling agreed with the beekeepers, citing the "precariousness of bee populations" and Dow’s "flawed and limited data" as its reason for overturning the EPA’s approval of the chemical. In its decision, the court said the EPA’s decision was based on "inconclusive or insufficient data on the effect... on brood development and long-term [bee] colony health."
“That's a problem, the court added, because pesticides can cause subtle harm to bees that don't kill them but that ‘ripple through the hive,’ which is an ‘interdependent superorganism,'” reports Mother Jones.
Greg Loarie, an attorney for EarthJustice who argued the case for the beekeeper's coalition, told Mother Jones that the decision is nothing short of a big deal, especially when it comes to approving new pesticides and other agrochemicals—the ruling “makes clear” that the agency now “must assess robust data on the health impacts on the entire hive, not just on individual adult bees.”
"The EPA doesn't have that [hive-level] information on very many insecticides, if any," Loarie said. And according to Mother Jones, the EPA failed to gather sufficient data on the effects of sulfoxaflor, overlooking “major gaps” in the research before finally approving the pesticide a few months later, despite asking Dow to provide more data that the agency shows no signs of ever receiving.
Mother Jones notes that Circuit Judge N.R. Smith said in the decision: "I am inclined to believe the EPA... decided to register sulfoxaflor unconditionally in response to public pressure for the product and attempted to support its decision retroactively with studies it had previously found inadequate." The judge added, "Such action seems capricious."
The EPA approved sulfoxaflor in 2013, the same year the European Union enacted a two-year restriction on use of several major neonicotinoid pesticides for their link to declining bee populations.
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Bee image via Shutterstock