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The EPA is again considering a bee-killing pesticide to combat Florida's citrus greening disease

Jessica Meszaros
WUSF Public Media

For the ninth consecutive year, federal environmental officials are considering granting emergency use authorization of a harmful pesticide on Florida's citrus crops. It's meant to eliminate an insect that's spreading the deadly and costly greening disease, but it can also kill bees as they pollinate the trees.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is requesting emergency use of a neonicotinoid called clothianidin, an insecticide that causes seizures, paralysis and death in bugs.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved its use in the state for the past eight consecutive years to fight the Asian citrus psyllid, which has devastated Florida’s citrus industry.

Nathan Donley, science director for the Environmental Health program at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the poison contaminates the pollen and nectar of plants, which will kill bees. And scientists have been recording a rapid decline in that insect's population.

"They perform amazing ecological services ... pollinating wildflowers. Pollinators, in general, are responsible for generating about a third of our food,” said Donley. “So, one out of every three bites of food we eat we owe to insects like bees that pollinate crops.”

Neonicotinoid pesticides like this have been historically considered safe for people, but that is changing, according to Donley.

“We're seeing more and more research come out of academic labs now finding that even relatively low concentrations of things like clothianidin… can negatively affect neural development in humans,” he said.

The state wants permission to use 50,000 pounds of clothianidin on citrus, including oranges, tangerines, lemons, limes and grapefruits, from now through the end of October.

Donley said that’s actually a relatively low amount.

“That's not saying anything good about this emergency approval. It's really a huge knock on our pesticide overuse in this country because we use about … 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides in the United States every year,” he said.

According to the University of Florida, there are 16 different insecticides approved to combat citrus greening in Florida alone, including three others that are neurotoxic: imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and sulfoxaflor.

“So, to think that there's any utility in adding a 17th is really quite ridiculous,” said Donley. “This is not fixing the problem… we need new solutions.”

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal petition in 2020 asking the EPA to cap emergency exemptions at two years.

"We are trying to make this process work the way it was intended, which is to approve very worrisome emergencies very quickly, but not use it as a workaround for the normal approval process. That's how it's being used right now," he said.

The organization has not received a meaningful response from the EPA, according to Donley, so he said they are looking at their options.

The EPA is accepting public comments through Feb. 16 before making the decision on whether or not to grant the exemption.

But Donley said he expects the EPA to approve the use of clothianidin on 125,000 acres of Florida's citrus crops within the next month.

Copyright 2022 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7.

Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of Morning Edition at WUSF Public Media, and former reporter and host of All Things Considered for WGCU News.