17 Sep 2015

NZ urged to follow US pesticide ban

6:08 am on 17 September 2015

New Zealand campaigners against pesticides are calling on the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to ban sales of a chemical used to coat seeds, after a court decision has taken it off the market in America.

A United States federal appeals court has overturned approval for the neonicotinoid sulfoxaflor because of a potential risk to bees.

A beehive set up to monitor the movement of bees.

A beehive set up to monitor the movement of bees. Photo: CSIRO

The court found last week that the US Environmental Protection Agency had relied on limited and flawed data from the manufacturer Dow Agroscience, and its approval was unjustified given the precarious state of the bee population.

The chemical has a multi-billion dollar global market, and Dow has said it will seek to overturn the decision after doing more regulatory work.

But the decision is being hailed by groups campaigning against the use of neonicotinoids as a turning point in their battle against use of the pesticide group.

Sulfoxaflor is now banned throughout the United States until such time as Dow can show it will not harm bees, but at this point, it is still approved in New Zealand.

It is used mainly as a coating for crop seeds, designed to protect the growing plant against sucking insects.

The lobby group GE Free New Zealand says the insecticide should be withdrawn for sale immediately - and it has formally asked the EPA to reassess its approval.

But group secretary Claire Bleakely says the EPA's reply was discouraging.

"They have told us that if we want them to re-assess this neonicotinoid we need to pay them and fill in the requisite form," she said.

"We're saying this is a dangerous thing, and the public and the beekeepers and New Zealand, should not be subject to the cost."

The EPA said it was aware of the US court decision and would examine it in detail, along with the response of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The comments of US circuit court Judge Randy Smith have been widely reported in US media after the case, which was taken by American beekeepers.

"I am inclined to believe the EPA [US Environmental Protection Agency] decided to register sulfoxaflor unconditionally in response to public pressure for the product and attempted to support its decision retrospectively, with studies it had previously found inadequate," the judge is quoted as saying.

New Zealand's Environmental Protection Authority approved the pesticide for use in New Zealand in 2013, but did not class it as a neonicotinoid, although it acts in a similar way, as a neurotoxin.

The neonicotinoids are as lethal for bees as they are for the insects they are designed to kill, and regulators around the world have imposed conditions on their use designed to reduce bees' exposure to the chemicals.

A study by the European Food Safety Authority found there was an acute risk to honey bees by dust drift, from the pesticide coating on crop seeds.

But Federated Farmers bee industry group said that was a risk that has since been been addressed by using stickier coatings on the seeds.

Beehive on an organic farm.

Federated Farmers say the number of hives in New Zealand is growing. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Group chair John Hartnell said if the pesticides were a problem in New Zealand, the bee population would be dwindling.

Instead he says it is growing. He estimates there will be 600,000 hives in the country by Christmas and he says the neo-nicotinamides are being used safely by New Zealand growers.

"As the bee industry we've done work with the companies that are using neo-nics as seed coatings," Mr Hartnell said.

"We are very close to them in terms of making sure their coatings have strong integrity and they are robust, and we don't end up in a situation where those coatings break down, and we have dust that is very toxic to honey bees, entering the environment."

However a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health found high levels of neonicotinoids in six pollen samples from New Zealand.

Veteran pesticide researcher Dr Meriel Watts who now works as a consulting scientist for the United Nations and other organisations, said that was a threat to bees that the EPA has consistently refused to acknowledge.

She said neonicotinoids did not stay on the seed, but were absorbed by the plant and in turn by the insects that fed on it, including bees.

"They are taken up by the growing plant from the seed coating and dispersed throughout the plant throughout its lifetime," Dr Watts said.

"So they appear in the pollen, they appear in the flowers, they appear in the fruit and vegetables we eat and they appear in the little droplets of water that plants exude in the early dawn.

"These are called guttation droplets. Bees and butterflies and a number of other insects drink those droplets as their water source, and they become poisonous."