Statement: Federal appeals court rules use of antibiotic as citrus pesticide unlawful, vacates EPA approval

Media Contacts
Andre Delattre

Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Program, The Public Interest Network

SAN FRANCISCO  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday ruled in favor of farmworkers and public-interest groups’ call for reversal of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) approval of the medically important antibiotic streptomycin as a pesticide on citrus crops.

In the ruling, the court determined the EPA’s 2021 decision to allow spraying of streptomycin on citrus crops across the country to be unlawful under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The court also held that the seriousness of the EPA’s errors required it to vacate the EPA’s approval of the pesticide.

The decision directs the EPA to bolster its analysis of the potential risks to pollinators and  assess whether streptomycin is actually effective for one of its approved uses. The court noted that it does not take the decision to vacate an agency’s decision lightly, and in this case, “EPA’s statutory violations coupled with its own concessions make this the required course.” 

The decision protects pollinators, imperiled species, and the health of farmworkers who would otherwise face heightened risk of antibiotic-resistant infections. 

Streptomycin is used to treat serious illnesses ranging from tuberculosis to urinary tract infections. The overuse of medically important antibiotics has contributed to increased antibiotic resistance in bacteria, a pressing public health crisis causing more than 35,000 deaths each year in the United States.

The widespread use of streptomycin in agriculture could also cause long-term harm to animal and plant biodiversity. The decision highlights the EPA’s widespread failure to carry out its duties to protect federally protected endangered species, noting that the agency “acknowledged that in the thousands of pesticide registrations it has approved in the past decades under FIFRA, it has met its ESA obligations for less than 5% of those actions.”

Petitioners in the case include NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and U.S. PIRG, represented by NRDC; Beyond Pesticides, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida (ECOSWF), Farmworker Association of Florida, Farmworker Justice, and Migrant Clinicians Network, represented by Earthjustice; and the Center for Biological Diversity, represented by in-house counsel.

The following are statements from co-petitioners in the case:

“We’ve known for years that when we overuse medically important antibiotics, the bacteria they don’t kill often become ‘superbugs,’ with increased antibiotic resistance. This problem goes well beyond just doctors overprescribing for people – a significant majority of the medically important antibiotics meant for humans actually go to agriculture. If we continue to misuse antibiotics on farms and in orchards, we’re creating breeding grounds for the next pandemic.” Andre Delattre, Chief Operating Officer, Program, PIRG

“We applaud the court’s decision to end the use of the medically important antibiotic streptomycin as a pesticide on citrus crops. This use was extremely detrimental to the well-being and safety of our farmworkers and to the crops it was alleged to protect. The misuse of medically significant antibiotics has contributed to the alarming rise of antibiotic resistance in bacteria—a pressing public health crisis responsible for over 35,000 deaths annually in the U.S. alone. In the face of daily challenges such as heat stress and pesticide exposure, our farmworkers, who toil tirelessly in the fields, undeniably deserve a brighter future, free from such avoidable threats.” Jeannie Economos, Coordinator, Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Program, Farmworker Association of Florida 

“We don’t need to blast medically important antibiotics into the environment – it undermines the effectiveness of those substances and threatens the pollinators that the food system requires. We do not have to choose between a stable food supply AND pollinators – we need both. Organic producers show that we do not have to sacrifice one for the other by building healthy farm ecosystems without wanton antibiotic usage.” Allison Johnson, Senior Attorney, Health & Food, NRDC

“The court’s decision to vacate the EPA’s unlawful approval of streptomycin is a win for public health, pollinators and endangered species. I hope that the EPA understands now that it can’t just wave away its legal obligations to examine the impacts of the pesticides it approves.” Hannah Connor, Attorney, Center for Biological Diversity.

“We are pleased that the Court’s ruling vacating the approval of the use of medically important streptomycin in citrus ultimately protects farmworkers who work the fields every day to feed our nation, as well as public health more broadly. The spraying of antibiotics has not been proven effective in treating citrus diseases and instead can drive antibiotic resistance that threatens human health, while potentially harming endangered species and the environment. We call on the EPA to fashion better solutions that don’t put people’s health, pollinators, or the environment at risk.” Carrie Apfel, Senior Attorney, Sustainable Food and Farming Program, Earthjustice.