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Court reverses approval of streptomycin on citrus crops

US EPA directed to evaluate risks to pollinators, evidence antibiotic prevents citrus diseases

by Britt E. Erickson
December 15, 2023

Oranges infected with citrus greening.
Credit: David Bartels/USDA
US citrus growers can no longer use streptomycin to combat citrus greening, a federal appeals court ruled.

The US Environmental Protection Agency didn’t follow the law when it approved spraying the antibiotic streptomycin on citrus crops to control devastating diseases like citrus greening, a federal appeals court ruled Dec. 13. The court reversed the EPA’s approval and sent the registration back to the agency to evaluate the risks of streptomycin to pollinators and review evidence that the antibiotic can prevent citrus diseases, not just treat them.

The EPA approved the use of streptomycin to combat citrus greening and citrus canker in January 2021 during the final days of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. Environmental groups sued the agency a few months later, claiming that it failed to assess the risks to pollinators and whether the use of streptomycin on citrus increases the risks of antibiotic resistance.

Streptomycin is an important antibiotic used to treat serious bacterial infections in humans, but overuse of the drug could promote deadly bacteria that are resistant to it.

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with the environmental groups that the EPA did not adequately address the risks to pollinators, as required under the Endangered Species Act. But the court sided with the EPA regarding its assessment of the risks of antibiotic resistance.

The court did not have issues with the agency’s determination that streptomycin effectively treats citrus diseases. However, it concluded that the EPA did not adequately explain how streptomycin can prevent citrus greening and citrus canker. The label suggests that the product can be used both to treat and prevent the diseases.

Citrus greening, also called huanglongbing, is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, an invasive insect. Infected plants often die. The disease has affected more than 90% of citrus grown in Florida and has caused Florida citrus growers to lose $4.5 billion in revenue since it was first detected in 2005, according to court documents. Citrus greening has also affected citrus grown in California and Texas.

Environmental groups involved in the lawsuit call the court’s decision a win for public health, farmworkers, and pollinators. “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,” Allison Johnson, senior attorney for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says in a statement.



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