California Must Regulate Toxic Neonic-Coated Crop Seeds

Pesticide-treated seeds, like these, pollute water and harm bees—yet they go unregulated in California. NRDC filed a petition to close a state loophole that lets them fall through the cracks.
Pesticide-treated crop seeds.

It’s rare that a state agency ever claims to have less power than the law allows, but for years, that’s been the policy of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) when it comes to likely one of the largest uses of pesticides in the state—neonicotinoid insecticide or “neonic”-coated crop seeds.

As a new report finds, crop seeds coated with neonics—the highly popular and bee-toxic pesticides that have been linked to mass losses of birdsbees, and fishbirth defects in white-tailed deer; and emerging human health concerns—have the potential to be the single largest use of neonics in the Golden State (~512,000 lbs. annually), larger than all other tracked uses combined (~474,000 lbs.). Today, NRDC and other health and environmental organizations petitioned DPR to take the commonsense step of regulating these pesticide-coated seeds just like any other pesticide.

How do these “neonic-treated” seeds work? As, “systemic” insecticides, neonics are designed to be absorbed by plants, making the plant itself—it’s roots, leaves, fruit, pollen, etc.—toxic to insects. Those same properties allow neonics to be painted on a crop seed and taken up by the plant’s roots as it grows. When applied in this fashion, 95% or more of the neonic active ingredient typically stays planted in the soil, where it can persist for years and spread out—carried by rain and irrigation water to pollute new soil, plants, and water supplies.

As the report finds, the impacts in California can be seen in the water. State water supplies are frequently contaminated with neonics at levels likely to cause “eco-system wide” harms, with neonic-treated seeds being a leading suspect. The report also concludes that these seeds pose major and underappreciated risks to the thousands of pollinating species critical to California’s environment and agricultural economy.

So DPR, the state’s lead pesticide agency, must be doing something about them, right?

Nearly all conventional corn in the U.S. is planted with neonic-treated seeds. There are close to half a million acres of corn in California.
Credit: "Corn field" by fishhawk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Wrong. DPR doesn’t track or regulate the use of neonic-treated seeds at all, claiming they simply don’t have the power.

How so? The agency views pesticide-coated seeds as not technically “pesticides” under state law, creating a massive loophole in the agency’s pesticide authority. It’s like if the Food and Drug Administration were to claim that Frosted Flakes don’t count as a “sugary cereal,” but that corn flakes do, provided the sugar is added once they’re in the bowl.

Of course, this doesn’t make any sense—and as it turns out, it also violates California law. That’s why NRDC—with Californians for Pesticide Reform, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Pesticide Action Network North America, and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation—filed a petition with DPR today, demanding the agency abandon its current unacceptable policy and begin registering and regulating seeds coated with neonics and other harmful systemic insecticides.

Doing so isn’t just needed for technical compliance with state law, it’s also needed for DPR to fundamentally do its job. While once rare, skyrocketing use of neonics and other pesticides as seed coatings has now made them the standard on virtually all seeds for certain crops like corn and cotton. Totally ignoring use of these seeds means DPR’s efforts to protect pollinators by proposing new limits on neonic use will miss a significant (and maybe the largest) part of the problem. It will also undermine DPR’s ongoing efforts to find alternatives to synthetic pesticides—allowing chemical companies to skirt any and all protections by merely putting their pesticides on a seed before it crosses state lines.

A USGS map of the estimated use of the neonic imidacloprid in 2014, the last year for which treated seed data is available. California’s shading does not accurately show its neonic-treated seed use, as it has never been publicly tracked or estimated.

Californians deserve to know what pesticides are used to grow their foods and how much of those chemicals could be impacting farmworkers, consumers, native pollinators, and waterways. They also deserve to know that chemical pesticides don’t magically stop being pesticides because they appear on a seed as opposed to in a bottle.

Neonic-treated seeds are pesticides and requiring them to be registered just like any other pesticide is a needed first step that toward ensuring they are used safely and effectively. DPR should reverse course, register neonic-treated seeds, and help set the gold standard for pesticide regulation in the 21st century.