The Environmental Protection Agency announced July 12 it’s eliminating crop restrictions on a pesticide known for its high toxicity to bees.

The EPA is approving the use of sulfoxaflor on a range of crops, including corn, cotton, and strawberries. The insecticide is produced by Corteva Agriscience (previously DowDuPont) and sold under the brand names Transform and Closer.

“We are thrilled to announce that EPA is adding new uses for sulfoxaflor,” said Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention. “Our action is supported by substantial data on human health and environmental impacts, including many new studies about bees.”

But environmental groups slammed the move, saying there was clear evidence of harm to bees and other pollinators, and the Center for Biological Diversity said it was planning legal action.

The agency had previously restricted use of sulfoxaflor to crops that bees don’t find attractive, after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2015 opinion vacated the EPA’s 2013 registration of sulfoxaflor due to insufficient evidence proving it wouldn’t harm honeybee colonies.

In June, the EPA approved emergency exemptions for the use of sulfoxaflor in 12 states to control tarnished plant bugs on cotton and to control sugarcane aphids on sorghum in 14 states.

The latest move extends use of the pesticide to alfalfa, corn, cacao, grains such as millet and oats, pineapple, sorghum, teff, teosinte, tree plantations, citrus, cotton, cucurbits such as squash, cucumbers, watermelons, some gourds, soybeans, and strawberries.

New Science

In a conference call with reporters, Dunn said new scientific studies commissioned by pesticide companies show that those crop-based restrictions are no longer necessary.

“Our data on this insecticide is among EPA’s largest data sets of the effects of a pesticide on bees,” she said.

Dunn also said there aren’t many viable alternatives to control some of these pests, and unlike sulfoxaflor, alternatives such as organophosphate- and carbamate-based pesticides require repeated applications which can be much worse for the environment.

“When used according to required label, there is no significant risk to human health, as well as lower risk to non-target wildlife including birds, mammals, bees, and fish, when compared to widely-used registered alternatives,” Dunn said.

The EPA’s registration of sulfoxaflor will also include updated requirements for product labels, including some crop-specific restrictions, as well as pollinator-protection language.

But environmental groups have complained for years about even the practice of granting emergency-use exemptions for pesticides, saying it defeated the purpose of having regulations. Some have already announced plans to fight this latest move in court.

“With no opportunity for independent oversight or review, this autocratic administration’s appalling decision to bow to industry and grant broad approval for this highly toxic insecticide leaves us with no choice but to take legal action,” said Lori Ann Burd, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s environmental health program.

A Necessary Tool For Farmers

In addition to new science on sulfoxaflor, the EPA said its decision was also based on the high number of complaints the agency was receiving from farmers struggling to control pests such as the tarnished plant bug and sugarcane aphids.

“The invasive sugarcane aphid, first confirmed in the U.S. in 2013, has had a devastating impact in many sorghum-producing states,” said Dan Atkisson, chairman of National Sorghum Producers.

“We are happy to see this crop protection tool move from an annual Section 18 [emergency exemption] process to a Section 3 registration, which will provide sorghum farmers certainty year-to-year they will have this vital tool necessary to combat invasive sugarcane aphids,” Atkisson said in a statement.

But other evidence shows bees could be harmed, including a 2018 study in the journal Nature that found bees exposed to sulfoxaflor produced fewer reproductive offspring.

“There is an urgent need to pre-emptively evaluate the potential sub-lethal effects of sulfoximine-based pesticides on pollinators, because such effects are rarely detected by standard ecotoxicological assessments, but can have major impacts at larger ecological scales,” the study said.

‘Height of Irresponsibility’

Despite the statements from EPA that sulfoxaflor is safe for use, a number of environmental and food safety groups, say the chemical’s negative impact on bees and other pollinators has already been proven.

“Proposing to register sulfoxaflor for use on bee-attractive crops, in the midst of an ongoing pollinator crisis, is the height of irresponsibility,” said Drew Toher, community resource and policy director for Beyond Pesticides.

“When all of the available data points to significant risks to pollinators from use of this chemical we must face the facts: EPA is working towards the protection of pesticide industry, not the environment,” he said.

Increased use of pesticides is often cited as one of the main factors responsible for a sharp spike in death rates for commercial honeybee colonies, alongside impacts from parasite infestations and habitat loss.

Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit that represents environmental interests in court, called the EPA’s move “reckless.”

“Scientists have long said pesticides like sulfoxaflor are the cause of the unprecedented colony collapse,” he said.