California Must Close Big Pesticide Loophole

When is a pesticide not a pesticide?

Soybean seeds treated with insecticides and fungicides.

In not so many words, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) recently acknowledged that it may have totally overlooked one of the largest uses of pesticides in the Golden State for the past several decades.

It all centers on the question: when is a pesticide not a pesticide?

DPR’s answer at a November virtual workshop: When it appears on a seed.

While you may not know it, almost all conventional crop seeds are coated with some form of a pesticide before planting, turning them a variety of artificial colors (looking a little like Skittles). Some pesticide coatings protect the seed itself (e.g., some fungicides). Others—like neonicotinoid insecticides or “neonics”, the pesticides linked to devastating losses of bees, birds, and other critical pollinators across the country—are soaked up through the roots of a plant as it grows from the seed, spreading throughout the whole plant and making it toxic to insects. However, the vast majority of these pesticide coatings typically stay in the soil, where they persist for years and move easily with rain or irrigation water to contaminate new soil, plants, and water supplies.


A planter with pesticide-treated crop seeds.

California law requires that DPR regulate these born-to-wander chemicals—including state registration and use tracking in the state’s Pesticide Use Reporting (PUR) database—even when they are mixed with other products, such as fertilizers. Pesticide-coated seeds, however, have long avoided DPR regulation or tracking, under DPR’s policy that the colorful, toxic seeds are not legally “pesticides” under state law.

Last fall, NRDC and its allies filed a petition demanding DPR close this illegal loophole. Last month’s workshop (video here and PowerPoint here) highlights why doing that is so critically important. While much was discussed, two key points stand out:

  • DPR Doesn’t Control What Pesticides Go into California Soil – You’d think the state pesticide agency controls the pesticides used in the state, but that’s not the case in California so long as the pesticide appears on a seed. DPR discussed the results of an analysis it conducted using data from the state Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) from the last 11 years. It revealed that dozens of pesticide products not approved for use in California appeared on seeds ready to be planted in California soil—an eye-raising finding. As long as DPR stands by its loophole, it won’t be able to protect California’s residents or environment from these toxic pesticides.


DPR discovered over two dozen pesticide products that aren't approved in California yet still are being planted in California soil.

  • Most Pesticide Use in California Farm Fields May Go Undetected – Much like dark matter and dark energy—which scientists believe may comprise 95% of the universe—the vast majority of pesticide use in California farm fields may be completely unknown. A DPR case study of lettuce seeds presented at the workshop showed that the actual use of neonic pesticides on lettuce seeds could be anywhere from five to thirty-five times higher than the known tracked and regulated use, depending on the chemical. These results accord with an NRDC-commissioned report, finding that the single largest use of neonics in the state may be the untracked and unregulated seed coatings.


The light blue and orange bars show that the amount of neonics used on crop seeds may dwarf those that DPR tracks.

While the exact pesticide quantities used on seeds and use locations remain mysteries, one thing is clear: DPR doesn’t have a clue or the regulatory policy needed to protect California’s wildlife, water, or people. And it never will—not for neonics, organophosphates, or any future pesticide invented by industry and sprayed on a seed—until it closes the loophole.

Of course, after last month’s presentation, there’s reason to hope that DPR has seen the light too and will now take the needed steps to correct course. The agency is accepting public comments on a list of questions until February 15, 2022. If you want tell DPR to take action to close the treated-seed loophole, be sure to make your voice heard.


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