Oral arguments begin today in a lawsuit challenging the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its approval of the antibiotic streptomycin for use as a pesticide on citrus trees.
The lawsuit, filed in 2021 by a coalition of public interest, environmental health, and farmworker advocacy groups, claims the use of streptomycin is unlawful under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act and Endangered Species Act. The groups say the agency failed to ensure that the use of streptomycin to combat citrus greening would not cause unreasonable harm to human health or the environment.
Citrus greening is caused by the bacterium Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus, which is carried by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid. Infected trees produce green, small, misshapen fruit and die within a few years. The groups say that more than 650,000 pounds of streptomycin could be used on citrus trees in Florida and California, despite little evidence that it will solve the problem.
The EPA authorized the spraying of streptomycin—labelled as "critically important" to human health by the World Health Organization—in 2018 after 2 years of review, despite concerns expressed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and members of Congress. In addition to worries about the effect on citrus workers, insects, and mammals that forage in treated fields, there are concerns that spraying streptomycin in citrus trees could select for antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the environment.
"Medically important antibiotics should be reserved for a doctor's toolkit, not agricultural fields," Allison Johnson, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC, one of the petitioners in the case), said in a press release. "Misuse and overuse of these precious medicines are known to exacerbate the growing health threat posed by antibiotic-resistant infections."
The case is being heard by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.