(Beyond Pesticides, January 13, 2021) An ethanol processing plant located in the small village of Mead, Nebraska has been using seeds coated in bee-toxic chemicals as part of its production process, according to reporting published in The Guardian earlier this week. The plant, owned by a company called AltEn, may be the only plant in the U.S. producing biofuels with toxic seeds. There is a reason for that, and Mead residents are experiencing a real adverse effect of EPA not regulating treated seeds.
The prevalence of the use of seed coatings in chemical agriculture has increased over the last several decades, as the pesticide industry works to increase product sales by exploiting a loophole in federal pesticide law. Under FIFRA (the Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act), a clause known as the “treated article exemption” permits seeds to be coated with highly toxic pesticides without any requirement for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assess environmental or public health effects of their use. This allows hazardous pesticides (primarily insecticides and fungicides) to be used indiscriminately with no effective oversight. Research finds that over 150 million acres of farmland are planted with toxic seeds, including nearly four tons of bee-killing neonicotinoids each year.
The AltEn plant is unique in that it is accepting unused treated seeds for farmers, advertising the site as a “recycling” facility, according to The Guardian. Apart from biofuel production, ethanol plants usually sell their spent, fermented grains to livestock farmers for feed. Processing toxic seeds has made that product too hazardous for cattle, so AltEn has been selling it to farmers as a soil amendment.
The concentration of hazardous pesticides in the production process has resulted in widespread contamination of spent grains. After numerous complaints, the state prohibited AltEn from selling the grains. In response, the company has piled it up around the plant, allowing it to leach into groundwater and spill out of storage ponds into nearby streams. The neonicotinoid clothianidin was found in a waste mound at an astounding 427,000 parts per billion (ppb). A wastewater storage pond found high levels of three neonicotinoids – imidacloprid, cloathianidin, and thimethoxam. Thiamethoxam was discovered at 24,000 ppb, over 300 times higher than its acceptable level in drinking water (70ppb), and roughly 1,300 times higher than the level considered safe for aquatic organisms by EPA (17.5ppb).
“It is a really significant contamination event that is impacting the local ecosystems and community there,” Sarah Hoyle of the invertebrate conservation group Xerces Society told The Guardian. Despite the obvious dangers posed by the plant, local residents in Mead have had difficulty getting their voices heard. “I’ve emailed the EPA, water, parks and conservation people, pretty much anybody I could think of,” said Jody Weible, chairwoman of the Mead planning commission to The Guardian. “They all say there is nothing they think they can do about it.” Reporting indicates that state regulators have yet to conduct testing of soil and water near the plant.
Expectedly, pollinators near the plant are dying off. Judy Wu-Smart, PhD, bee researcher at University of Nebraska documented a sustained collapse of every beehive used by the university for a research project on a farm within a mile of the AltEn plant. “There is a red flag here. The bees are just a bio-indicator of something seriously going wrong,” Dr. Wu-Smart told the Guardian. She further indicated an “urgent need to examine potential impacts on local communities and wildlife.”
Advocates have challenged the “treated article exemption” used by EPA to forgo regulation of treated seeds, but were rebuffed by the courts in deference to the agency. In response, the Center for Food Safety initiated a formal legal petition requesting EPA regulate the use of toxic seed coatings. The Trump administration has yet to respond to the petition, leaving the determination up to the next administration.
Beyond frustrations over the lack of regulation and inherent hazard treated seeds pose, is the simple fact that they are unnecessary. Multiple studies have found toxic seeds offer “little to zero net benefit in most cases.” Despite the fact that many farmers don’t know exactly what’s on the seeds their planting, pressure on conventional producers to use these products is often intense, and can come from peers, neighboring farms, pesticide dealers, and insurance salesmen.
The actions taken by AltEn, and subsequent hazardous environment the residents of Mead must now endure, would not occur with a functioning regulatory system that refuses to cater to corporate interests. One state regulator with the Nebraska department of environment and energy (NDEE) told The Guardian AltEn officials were “hard-working people trying to make a living.” But making a living by destroying the life around you is ultimately self-defeating.
The Biden administration must take bold steps to correct the shortcomings in pesticide regulation not just of the last four years, but the last several decades. Beyond Pesticides is calling on President-elect Biden to clean up EPA and stop accepting safety data from corporations with a track record of corruption, and urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to embrace organic farming practices.
For more information on the hazards posed by toxic seeds, see Beyond Pesticides video, Seeds that Poison.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
Source: The Guardian