By Ben Sacher
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for approving and reapproving crop protection tools, weighing the risks to human health and the environment against their benefits.
This science-based, risk-benefit approach is rigorous: millions of dollars are spent to show the safety and efficacy of products. Growers don’t always get or keep the tools they want, but a reliable science-based process has supported the safe use of the products growers rely on while protecting health and the environment. Maintaining the integrity of that process is vital to the continued health of American agriculture.
Unfortunately, over the last several years, activity in federal courts fueled by activists and at EPA has accelerated pressure on important crop protection tools and, in some cases, threatens the integrity of that process. Threats include the use of more conservative approaches to assessing the impacts of pesticides, and developing new approaches that seem to focus only on theoretical or potential risk. Western Growers is working to not only protect specific compounds and uses, but to ensure that EPA follows a transparent and science-based process.
In a number of areas, EPA appears to be adopting more conservative approaches that some say violate the normal order of their pesticide approval and review process.
One of the most relevant developments to our industry is the move to revoke all tolerances for chlorpyrifos, a widely-used, broad-spectrum insecticide registered on many fruits, tree nuts and vegetables. EPA has used conservative water modeling, and applied a safety factor based on unverified studies to propose to revoke the tolerances for chlorpyrifos. The moves seem to run counter to long-standing precedent at EPA. Typically, EPA will consider a range of evidence, but it appears to have elevated less reliable information over rigorous laboratory testing and monitoring data. In addition to conservative water modeling, EPA is also looking to epidemiological studies that show associations between indoor chlorpyrifos use and developmental outcomes. Finally, EPA proposed to set firm numbers on safety levels based on epidemiological studies for which the underlying data has not even been made available to EPA to analyze! Western Growers, as well as the crop protection industry, has loudly raised concern to EPA and USDA about the use of these new techniques—all of which appear to be aimed at the outcome of making it harder to use pesticides. We have been very firm that science should not presuppose an outcome; rather, the evaluation process EPA uses should maintain its historical integrity. Recently, EPA’s own science advisory panel strongly warned against using the epidemiological studies in this way. Western Growers has filed multiple comments highlighting the benefits of chlorpyrifos and expressing concerns over EPA’s approach. EPA is required to make a decision on revoking tolerances by December 2016.
The impact of pesticides to pollinators has been a flash point for years, with activists pushing to ban entire classes of pesticides that have the potential to harm bees. Fortunately, in 2015, the White House worked with a wide spectrum of stakeholders to put forward a balanced strategy to better understand pollinator losses and improve pollinator health. The strategy recognizes that a range of factors impact pollinators. Pursuant to that strategy, EPA is conducting a science-based risk assessment of four neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been targeted as a cause of bee decline. In January, EPA released a draft pollinator risk assessment of one of the four compounds, imidacloprid, and found that use of these products on only citrus and cotton surpass a threshold for harm to bees. These risks can be mitigated with appropriate best management practices.
Unfortunately, EPA’s public statement gave the impression of widespread risk, while the study itself affirmed the safety of imidacloprid in almost all cases. Western Growers submitted comments to EPA emphasizing the importance of clear factual communication with the public and a science-driven process. Western Growers is working with the citrus industry, chemical companies and other stakeholders to inform the public, Congress and the Administration about the importance of neonicotinoids, and to urge a balanced, science-based approach to pollinator issues, as is outlined in the White House initiative.
We are extremely worried about a host of activist groups pushing their anti-pesticide agenda with the EPA and the EPA bending to unscientifically-based pressure to restrict use without industry rebuttal. Western Growers will continue to be engaged on the pollinator issue as additional neonic compounds are reviewed.
Even on sensitive topics in a political environment, we can successfully protect growers’ interests. In 2014, EPA proposed a revised Worker Protection Standard, claiming that “a sizable portion” of workers “may be exposed” to pesticides that “can pose” significant health risk. Absent from this was a clear case that current standards are inadequate, and identifying shortcomings new requirements would address. With support from worker advocates, EPA proposed a number of new requirements that Western Growers objected to. And while agricultural was notably absent when the final rule was announced with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and United Farm Worker President Arturo Rodriguez, EPA did act on many of our concerns.
Even when the narrative is difficult to change, a strong response from agriculture can and does lead to improvements. Growers face an unpredictable environment for crop protection, with headwinds from activist pressure and changing science approaches. Western Growers and other agriculture groups are battling to protect important crop protection tools, and to prevent a scientific process from being drive by politics.
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