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Groups challenge EPA approval of streptomycin use on citrus

Petitioners raise concerns about antibiotic resistance and risks to endangered species

by Britt E. Erickson
March 31, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 12


Agricultural worker's hand showing an orange affected by citrus greening disease
Credit: USDA
The EPA is facing a lawsuit for allowing the use of the antibiotic streptomycin on citrus to treat diseases such as citrus greening, shown here.

A coalition of environmental and farmworker groups is suing the US Environmental Protection Agency for allowing use of the medically important antibiotic streptomycin on citrus. The groups are concerned that widespread use of streptomycin as a pesticide will worsen the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The EPA approved the use of streptomycin to combat citrus greening and citrus canker during the final days of the Trump administration. The agency says that those diseases have caused $1.75 billion in losses to US citrus growers over the past decade.

The petitioners claim that the EPA failed to demonstrate that use of streptomycin on citrus would not pose unreasonable risks to human health and the environment. They also claim that the agency did not adequately address the risks to endangered species.

Streptomycin is considered a critical antibiotic by the World Health Organization. It is used to treat multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in humans.

“Allowing life-saving antibiotics to be used as pesticides is an unnecessary and dangerous practice that fuels a growing public health epidemic: antibiotic resistance,” Allison Johnson, sustainable food policy advocate at the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, says in a statement. NRDC is one of the petitioners in the lawsuit.

According to the EPA, more than 16,000 kg of streptomycin is used annually on apples and pears in the US to treat fire blight. The agency estimates that its use on citrus would increase agricultural usage 18-fold to more than 295,000 kg. For comparison, the petitioners note that only about 6,350 kg of all aminoglycosides, the class of antibiotics that includes streptomycin, are used for medical purposes each year in the US.



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