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EPA poised to expand neonicotinoid restrictions

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Ag groups say neonic biologic evaluations are overly conservative and inflate affected species numbers.

Through the registration review of neonicotinoids, the Environmental Protection Agency is currently proposing mitigations to protect non-target endangered species from harm, according to a new biological evaluation released. Agricultural groups expressed concerns over the data used to determine the recommendations that could have a widespread impact on growers if the crucial pesticide ingredients are no longer allowed.

EPA released its final Endangered Species Act biological evaluations for three neonicotinoid insecticides: clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam. The evaluations were required by June 2022 as part of a Center for Food Safety litigation and subsequent 2019 legal settlement. The determinations mark the first time EPA has undertaken an assessment of the impacts of neonicotinoids on endangered species.

In the final documents released June 16, EPA found that each “neonic” is likely to adversely affect from two-thirds to over three-fourths of America’s endangered species—1,225 to 1,445 species in all. This includes all amphibians, and the majority of already endangered fish, birds and mammals, as well as pollinators and the plants they pollinate. Species found likely to be adversely affected include the Chinook salmon, Florida panther, Indiana bat, whooping crane, California red-legged frog, Karner blue butterfly, yellow larkspur among others, according to a statement from CFS.

“EPA may need to adopt additional mitigations in the future to ensure that the neonicotinoids are not likely to jeopardize listed species or adversely modify their designated critical habitats,” EPA explains in a Q&A document on whether additional mitigation measures may need to be adopted..

However, in a joint release from the American Soybean Association and American Farm Bureau Federation, the organizations express frustration over the way EPA made its final BE decision. As with the draft BEs last August, the final BEs are “overly conservative and in some instances fail to use important data,” the organizations state. As a result, ASA and AFBF are concerned the BEs drastically overstate the impact of the pesticides on endangered species and their habitats.

The BEs for several neonicotinoid pesticides, including imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin, do not incorporate scientific and commercial data that could have provided a more realistic picture of the potential impact of the chemistries on species, they state. For example, nearly all applications of neonicotinoids in soybeans are made as seed treatments, using a minuscule amount of pesticide buried underground where it is far less likely to impact species or habitat.

Ag groups question EPA's data

However, the final BEs assume growers exclusively make foliar spray and soil applications using many times more active ingredient than is reflected by real-world USDA and market survey data. The BEs also continue to assume a species will be adversely affected if only one individual in a species is impacted, which greatly inflates effects assessments, ASA and AFBF add.

Despite the groups pointing out these shortcomings in draft BE public comments, “EPA doubled down on using inappropriate and overly cautious assumptions in its final BEs, which leads to significant overestimations on the impact on species,” the release states.

Brad Doyle, soy farmer from Arkansas and ASA president, says, “Growers have time and again pointed EPA to real-world data to improve their endangered species assessments, which the agency has again chosen to disregard. It’s frustrating because conservative assumptions inflate the number of species EPA claims are likely to be adversely affected, which in turn creates more work for the agencies. By law, EPA must formally consult on every species it determines may be affected, even if the agency could rule out many species by using better data.”

EPA did say it considered real world pesticide usage data in the final biological evaluations. Under EPA’s revised method for conduction biological evaluations, it says in general EPA considers the most recent five years of usage data to represent current labeled uses.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall states, “For generations, farmers and ranchers have taken care of our natural resources and taken significant steps to protect natural habitats and wildlife. We take our responsibility to be good stewards of the land seriously. Farmers use pesticides precisely and also utilize technologies to minimize impact, which has allowed us to produce more food with fewer resources. But EPA’s flawed overestimation of farm pesticide use could lead to lower yields as farmers lose access to important crop protection tools.”

EPA says it is working actively with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, USDA and stakeholders to improve the process and outcomes of pesticide consultations. For example, EPA will be working with the services throughout the consultation process to identify how the effects determinations included in the final biological evaluations and the comments received on the draft biological evaluations can inform the services’ biological opinions.

In 2019, pursuant to a legal settlement with the Center for Food Safety, EPA announced the cancellation of 12 neonicotinoid products. CFS’s successful case—litigated from 2013-2018 on behalf of a coalition of conservationists and beekeepers—challenged neonicotinoids use. This latest ESA announcement from EPA marks the second half of the settlement.

“Today EPA admitted what we have long warned: Neonics are causing grave harm to not just bees but to the vast majority of all endangered species,” says George Kimbrell, CFS legal director. “These damning admissions should result in neonics being banned, as they are in Europe. Formal consultation with the expert wildlife agencies must now be completed and significant safeguards put in place to protect the environment—if this class of pesticide can be used safely at all. We will continue to watchdog the agency to ensure it complies with its legal duties.”

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