Spraying an Antibiotic on Citrus Groves Will Harm Worker Health

NRDC and our partners are suing to reverse the EPA’s dangerous decision to expand the use of medically important streptomycin as an unproven solution to citrus greening.

A farmworker picks citrus in a Florida grove.

Gaye Ajoy and the Farmworker Association of Florida

In the final days of the Trump administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) greenlighted a new use of streptomycin, a critically important antibiotic used to treat tuberculosis, urinary tract infections, and other illnesses—allowing it to be sprayed on citrus groves across the United States. This approval threatens the health of farmworkers and their communities and will contribute to the growing antibiotic resistance crisis that claims up to 162,000 lives in the country every year. 

Today, NRDC—along with Beyond Pesticides, Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida (ECOSWF), Farmworker Association of Florida, Farmworker Justice, Migrant Clinicians Network, and U.S. PIRG, and represented by in-house counsel and Earthjustice—filed a lawsuit challenging EPA’s failure to adequately consider the significant risks of this reckless use of a precious medicine.

Overuse of antibiotics contributes to antibiotic resistance.

When bacteria are repeatedly exposed to an antibiotic, a small population of antibiotic-resistant bacteria may survive, multiply, and spread. As that population of resistant bacteria grows, antibiotics are less and less effective against them. Worse, they can spread their resistance traits to other strains of bacteria, including bacteria that cause illness in humans. And if those antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause an infection, it can be hard—and sometimes impossible—to treat. 

This phenomenon is contributing to a global antibiotic resistance crisis that disproportionately threatens low-income communities of color. Heightened levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria—and antibiotic-resistant infections—have been documented in farmworkers and communities living near concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that routinely feed antibiotics to animals. The expanded use of streptomycin in citrus groves presents similar risks to workers and farming communities that the EPA failed to thoroughly consider.

Spraying streptomycin is not a solution to citrus greening.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that a pesticide-by-pesticide approach to agricultural pest problems is not the answer. Citrus greening, a disease spread by the citrus psyllid, an invasive bug, has decimated the citrus industry in Florida and remains a serious threat in California and other citrus regions. After years of research, there is still no silver bullet cure for citrus greening, and attempting to control it with pesticides has significant downsides. 

Toxic pesticides pose well-documented threats to farmworkers, farming communities, and ecosystems. In addition, chemicals that target a pest can also harm its predators—and the destructive citrus psyllid can often bounce back first and then proliferate unchecked. 

Top: Citrus leaves damaged by citrus greening in a Texas sweet orange grove. Citrus greening is the most serious disease threatening U.S. citrus production.
Left: Pesticides being sprayed at a citrus nursery in Florida. Right: An invasive citrus psyllid, which can transmit the bacteria that causes citrus greening.

Top: David Bartels/USDA. Bottom left: Gaye Ajoy and the Farmworker Association of Florida. Bottom right: David Hall/USDA

Streptomycin may be less toxic than some pesticides used on citrus farms. Chlorpyrifos and other organophosphate pesticides, for example, interfere with children’s brain development, especially in farming communities. However, spraying with streptomycin is likely to contribute to the public health crisis of antibiotic resistance, and without proven benefits for combating citrus greening.

There are better, safer approaches to our pest problems.

The better solution? Focus on healthy soil and diversified farms. Crops grown in healthy soil tend to be stronger and better able to resist pest pressure. And farms that incorporate multiple types of crops make it harder for pests and disease to easily jump from one target plant to the next. Promising research indicates that an ecosystems-based organic approach to pest management may be the best path forward for controlling citrus greening while also offering a wide range of health, environmental, and social benefits.

It is not reasonable for the EPA to gamble with public health, especially when the potential agricultural benefits of streptomycin remain unproven. Farming communities already carry disproportionate burdens from toxic pesticides, climate change, and racist agricultural policies and the EPA’s decision will add a heightened risk of dangerous antibiotic-resistant infections to this long and painful list. With today’s lawsuit, NRDC and our partner organizations continue our work to protect public health and ensure crucial medicines work when we need them most. 

Save Antibiotics

About the Authors

Allison Johnson

Sustainable Food Policy Advocate

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