July 21, 2022

Federal Advocacy: Pesticide Utilization—Feeling the Squeeze

By Jonathan Sarager, Federal Government Affairs Director

Specialty crop growers face many pressures, not the least of which is the constant struggle to keep pests at bay. Whether producers utilize conventional or organic farming methods, they continue to require an effective set of tools including pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to assist in the safe and effective production of the nutritious food we all need in our diet. But time is not on our side; existing tools are being pulled away and new alternatives are not getting here fast enough to provide a sustainable solution.

Most specialty crops are classified by the EPA as “minor use crops” because many are produced on less than 300,000 acres. Smaller acreage crops like ours often do not provide sufficient economic incentive for large chemical companies to bear the burden of the high costs associated with the development and registration of new products to assist growers with their battles against insects, weeds, and disease. As a result, there are far fewer affordable and effective crop inputs made available to specialty crop growers.

The concerns of a limited influx of new controls are compounded by the fact that existing products—often developed long ago for high acreage commodities and subsequently adapted for use in specialty crops—are being challenged for real or perceived effects on the environment or public health.

For decades, the EPA has failed to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service on pesticide registrations as required by the Endangered Species Act. As such, NGOs have filed and won ESA lawsuits which bring the whole system with respect to existing products into question and in recent cases, lawsuits have successfully postponed the use of newly registered pesticides after an already multiyear process. Foreign pressures on MRLs continue to elevate as well; ongoing issues surrounding MRL regulations and banning certain chemicals from the EU are well-documented and it is becoming a more global concern for exports.

We can often count on the USDA to aid in advocacy efforts, but with pesticides it’s different. In a recent amicus brief filed by the solicitor general of the Department of Justice for instance, it was argued that the Supreme Court should not review the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that glyphosate, something that EPA has stated is not a carcinogen, be labeled as cancer causing. While being questioned before Congress last month, USDA Secretary Vilsack revealed he was not consulted on this issue by the DOJ.

Additionally, societal pressures reflected by downstream customer demands are now reflected in retailer buying patterns. Even without government action many retailers are questioning producers about the use of pesticides and pressure is mounting to limit or eliminate the use of certain chemistries (even those proven safe). All told, specialty crop growers with limited tools to begin with are losing them without a corresponding development of new alternatives.

This situation is increasingly untenable for growers and WG proposes a renewed collective attention to the issue before it turns into a full crisis. We must look for ways to preserve the limited resources we currently have while increasing the number of safe and efficacious tools to assist specialty crop growers in their battles against all pests. As growers, we have an increasingly important voice in this debate, and we need to share the stories that convey the necessity these inputs play in our ability to continue to provide an ample supply of nutritious food.

We are encouraging allied organizations to join in this effort as well and look to upcoming legislative activity to improve the environment for next generation crop inputs. We can make a variety of improvements, whether it’s through our participation in the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance to include research funding in the Farm Bill reauthorization for accelerated work in alternatives for our industry, improved implantation of Integrated Pest Management systems, or cooperation with registrants on making improvements through the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act reauthorization. Beyond federal legislation, my colleagues within WG are working on solutions by facilitating advancements at the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology.

As we feel the squeeze on both sides from the removal of existing chemistries and the lack of adequate replacement innovations, we have had some great initial conversations with WG members on prioritization efforts. While research into new alternatives will take time, we do not have any assurances on the timing of removal of existing products. Given this uncertainty, we are pushing hard at both the federal and state levels, and with our innovation work to get prepared. We encourage you to engage with us to help drive these efforts in the most productive way forward.