The Bees Just Got Busier: EPA Approves New Fungicide to be Delivered by the Bees Themselves

Posted on December 20, 2019 by Richard Horder

EPA has been a hive of activity regarding the declining bee population. The agency recently approved an organic fungicide that is to be delivered to crops via “bee vectoring”—a process by which commercially-reared bees walk through trays of pesticide powder, collecting it on their legs and fur. The bees are then released into the wild, and when they land on flowers to collect pollen, the pesticide is distributed directly to the source. It’s true! I am not pollen your leg here.

The fungicide, Clonostachys rosea strain CR-7 (also known as “Vectorite”), is aimed at protecting “high value” crops such as almonds, blueberries, strawberries and sunflowers. The fungicide’s creator, Canadian company Bee Vectoring Technology International (BVT), claims it is a “naturally occurring, non-genetically modified, unique fungus found throughout the world”—in other words, totally bee-nign. 

BVT had to seek approval from EPA for this unique fungicide and distribution process. Section 408 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) authorizes EPA to set tolerances, or maximum residue limits, for pesticide residues on foods. Without such a tolerance, food containing residue is subject to seizure by the government. EPA approved an exemption from this tolerance requirement for residues of Vectorite in August 2019, finding that it is “safe” within the meaning of FFDCA. Vectorite is the first pesticide EPA has ever allowed to be deployed by bees—a bee-utiful use of the exemption.

Here is what all the buzz is about: Vectorite may be a win-win for bees and struggling crops alike. Bumblebees have been declining at an alarming rate in the U.S. in recent years, and studies show that common chemical fungicides are responsible for at least 70% of this decline. These fungicides are traditionally applied via spraying, an imprecise method which requires more product than necessary, with the rest ending up in water sources or on land—a stinging result for the environment and bees alike. But the use of bee vectoring, a highly precise distribution method, may end up replacing the use of these traditional fungicides, thereby bolstering the declining bee population. It seems like bee vectoring is the bee’s knees and a honey of a solution!

But now for the buzz kill: some biologists believe the fungicide may prove harmful to the busy bees who deliver it. Sheila Colla, a conservation biologist at the University of York, thinks that farmers will continue to use insecticides in addition to Vectorite to combat fungal diseases. Not only that, but there is also the potential that this method will adversely affect the wild bee population. The rusty-patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis), listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act just two years ago, may very well have “[rapidly declined] because they were exposed to a novel disease from managed bees.” For more on the rusty patched bumblebee, see an earlier blog post of mine, Bumble Bee Buzzkill.

The question is, then (with apologies to Shakespeare): “to bee, or not to bee?” Even if Vectorite is not the solution to the plight of the American bumblebee, hopefully it will, at the very least, make farmers buzz off of the large-scale application of harmful chemical fungicides.

Chronic Pesticide Exemptions May Increase Risks to Our Pollinators

Posted on January 8, 2018 by Stephanie Parent

EPA has the responsibility to protect the public and the environment, including bees and other pollinators, from the use of pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Before any pesticide can be sold or distributed in the United States, EPA must register it after determining that its use will not generally cause “unreasonable adverse effects on the environment.” Section 18 of FIFRA allows use of pesticides that have not met this standard if “emergency conditions exist.” Congress intended use of Section 18 emergency exemptions to address urgent pest conditions such as severe and unexpected insect outbreaks. Yet, in some cases, EPA seems to administer the emergency exemption program so that it functions as a shortcut, allowing pesticide use to bypass the registration standard.

EPA’s repeated “emergency” exemptions for use of the insecticide sulfoxaflor on cotton and sorghum over the last six years are a good example of this. Sulfoxaflor is an insecticide, which EPA acknowledges is very highly toxic to bees. In 2015, the Ninth Circuit vacated EPA’s decision to register sulfoxaflor because “[w]ithout sufficient data, the EPA has no real idea whether sulfoxaflor will cause unreasonable adverse effects on bees, as prohibited by FIFRA.” In 2016, EPA registered sulfoxaflor without additional bee data or studies. Instead, EPA explained that the new registration results in “essentially no exposure to bees” because this time it did not allow use on indeterminate blooming crops, such as cotton, or on crops grown for seed. And, the registration restricted applications on certain “bee attractive” crops to post-bloom only.

Despite these restrictions in the registration designed to avoid harm to bees, EPA has exempted the use of sulfoxaflor over 70 times from 2011 through 2017. All but one of these exemptions was for use on cotton, which was retracted from the registration application following the Ninth Circuit’s decision, or on sorghum, which was never included in the registration in the first instance. Most recently, EPA exempted the use on alfalfa grown for seed, even though the registration also prohibits such use to avoid adverse effects to bees. The Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, makes the case that EPA’s chronic approvals of Section 18 exemptions for use of sulfoxaflor no longer reflect “emergency conditions” and are circumventing the FIFRA’s registration standard. We may learn more about sulfoxaflor and other exempted pesticide uses when EPA’s Office of Inspector General concludes its evaluation of whether EPA’s emergency exemption process maintains environmental and human health safeguards. 

Bumble Bee Buzzkill

Posted on February 14, 2017 by Richard Horder

Citing its deep decline in numbers, on January 10, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) listed the rusty patched bumble bee, Bombus affinis, as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  FWS estimates the rusty patched bumble bee population has seen as much as a 91 percent reduction since the mid to late 1990s.  Twenty years ago, this species was practically ubiquitous in eastern North America, spanning across 28 states.  Now its territory covers only small regions in 12 states: Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

This listing is the first for bees under the ESA, but unlikely the last.  Like the rusty patch bumble bee, other bee species are facing steep declines in their respective populations.  Declining bee populations are troubling, because bees, as pollinators, are vital to the U.S. agricultural industry.  According to a study conducted in 2010 by Cornell University, bees and other pollinators are estimated to contribute a total of $29 billion to the industry, with $16.35 billion attributed specifically to pollination. 

The direct cause of these dramatic declines in bee populations is undetermined and likely due to a multitude of factors.  FWS states the threats to the rusty patched bumble bee include disease, exposure to pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change.  This listing will likely intensify the debate over commonly used pesticides, including neonicotinoids, which have undergone additional scrutiny after a 2016 study published in Nature linked the use of neonicotinoids to the decline of wild bee populations in England.

FWS published the proposal for this listing in the Federal Register on September 22, 2016 and the final listing was published in the Federal Regulation on. January 10, 2017. However, due to the Trump administration’s Inauguration Day memorandum halting or delaying any new federal regulations, the ESA’s protection for the rusty patch bumble bee is delayed until March 21, 2017-a stinging result.

MANDATORY LABELING OF FOODS PRODUCED USING GENETIC ENGINEERING IS ON THE HORIZON

Posted on May 29, 2012 by Robert Uram

Labeling of food produced using genetic engineering is on the horizon either as a result of a petition that is pending before the Food and Drug Administration or as a result of a ballot initiative in California.  Labeling of genetically engineered food appears to have widespread popular support.

The presence of foods produced with the assistance of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, is widespread in the United States, especially for crops like corn and soybeans.  The most common genetic modification to date is an introduced trait to make a plant resistant to a specific herbicide, allowing farmers to use the herbicide without killing the crop.  Today, most of the crops produced using GMOs can used without having to comply with any significant regulatory requirements. 

Concern over use of genetically modified organisms covers a broad range of issues, including increased use of pesticides, the presence of genetically engineered foods in products that are not intended to be produced with such methodologies, and health concerns that may arise from consuming genetically engineered foods.  One way to address those concerns is to ensure that consumers know which products are produced using genetic modification so that those with concerns can avoid them.  However, unlike many other developed countries, the United States has no laws requiring labeling of food produced with genetically modified organisms.

Recently, more than one million individuals, more than 500 partner organizations representing the healthcare community, consumer advocates, farmers, concerned parents, environmentalists, food and farming organizations, businesses, and 55 members of Congress joined in support of a petition to the Food and Drug Administration for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.  The petition, among other things, calls for the FDA to issue regulations requiring labeling of all foods produced using genetic engineering.

In addition to the FDA petition, an initiative has been filed in California seeking to require the labeling of genetically modified foods in California. On May 2, 2012, more than 970,000 signatures were filed supporting a referendum to impose a California right-to-know requirement for GMOs.  The California law is known as the California Right-To-Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.  If adopted by the voters this November, commencing on July 1, 2014, retail sale of food offered in California would be banned if it is or may have been entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering, unless the production method is disclosed in clear and conspicuous words.  The labeling requirements would not apply to foods which inadvertently contain genetically engineered food products and has other limited exceptions.

These labeling requirements, if adopted, will give consumers a greater opportunity to decide whether or a not to purchase genetically engineered food and may have a far reaching effect on the markets for genetically engineered food.