In an order issued December 23, 2009, a federal court in New York invalidated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's approval of the pesticide spirotetramat, manufactured by Bayer CropScience and sold under the trade names Movento and Ultor. The court ordered the EPA to reevaluate the chemical.
The order issued by U.S. District Judge Denise Cote goes into effect on January 15, 2010, and makes future sales of Movento illegal in the United States.
The lawsuit was brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
"This sends EPA and Bayer back to the drawing board to reconsider the potential harm to bees caused by this new pesticide," said NRDC attorney Aaron Colangelo.
"EPA admitted to approving the pesticide illegally, but argued that its violations of the law should have no consequences," Colangelo said. "The court disagreed and ordered the pesticide to be taken off the market until it has been properly evaluated."
A honey bee on apple blossoms in New Jersey (Photo by Mullica)
A spokesperson for Bayer expressed disappointment with Judge Cote's ruling.
"Bayer should not be permitted to run what amounts to an uncontrolled experiment on bees across the country without full consideration of the consequences," Colangelo said.
The order comes as an alarming multi-year die-off of honey bees has beekeepers fighting for commercial survival and crop growers wondering whether bees will be available to pollinate their crops this coming spring and summer.
In June 2008, the Bush-era EPA approved Movento for nationwide use on hundreds of different crops, including apples, pears, peaches, oranges, tomatoes, grapes, strawberries, almonds, and spinach.
The approval process went forward without the advance notice and opportunity for public comment that is required by federal law and by the EPA's own regulations.
In her ruling, Judge Cote wrote, "As for the product's commercial success, if the product merits registration it should survive FIFRA's [Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act] notice and comment period and reexamination by the EPA, and it will return to the market. If it does not, then it should never have been registered and sold."
The EPA did recognize that spirotetramat could endanger bees by requiring that all end-use products containing the pesticide carry a warning label stating, "This product is potentially toxic to honey bee larvae through residues in pollen and nectar, but not to adult honey bees. Exposure of adult bees to direct treatment or residues on blooming crops can lead to effects on honey bee larvae."
Even so, argues Colangelo, the EPA "failed to evaluate fully the potential damage to the nation's already beleaguered bee populations or conduct the required analysis of the pesticide's economic, environmental, and social costs."
EPA's review of Bayer's scientific studies found that trace residues of Movento brought back to the hive by adult bees could cause "significant mortality" and "massive perturbation" to young honeybees, known as larvae.
Beekeepers and scientists have expressed concern over Movento's potential impact on beneficial insects such as honey bees.
Bayer said in a 2007 statement introducing the pesticide that spirotetramat is recommended for use in integrated crop protection programs "since it is safe for beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings." The statement did not mention bees.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bees pollinate $15 billion worth of crops grown in America. USDA also claims that one out of every three mouthfuls of food in the typical American diet has a connection to bee pollination.
Both honey bees and bumble bees in the United States have suffered steep declines in recent years due to a combination of stressors, including insecticide exposure.
Bayer CropScience says spirotetramat is "a long-acting active ingredient" which protects fruits, grapes, nuts, vegetables and potatoes from pests such as aphids, cicadas, grape louse, mealy bug, whitefly and cottony cushion scale.
"The unique feature of this substance is that the systemic active ingredient moves up and down through the entire plant system, including the young shoots, leaves and roots, and is thus distributed evenly and lastingly. It acts against insect larvae by ingestion," the company says.
"This case underscores the need for us to re-examine how we evaluate the impact of pesticides and other chemicals in the environment," said Colangelo. "In approving Movento, EPA identified but ignored potentially serious harms to bees and other pollinators. We are in the midst of a pollinator crisis, with more than a third of our colonies disappearing in recent years. Given how important these creatures are to our food supply, we simply cannot look past these sorts of problems."
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