USDA halts 100+ years of charting national pesticide use

May 23, 2008

Consumers and farmers will soon be on their own when it comes to finding out which pesticides are being sprayed on everything from corn to apples.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Wednesday it plans to do away with publishing its national survey tracking pesticide use, despite opposition from prominent scientists, the nation’s largest farming organizations and environmental groups.

“If you don’t know what’s being used, then you don’t know what to look for,” said Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at The Organic Center, a nonprofit in Enterprise, Ore. “In the absence of information, people can be lulled into thinking that there are no problems with the use of pesticides on food in this country.”

Since 1990, farmers and consumer advocates have relied on the agency’s detailed annual report to learn which states apply the most pesticides and where bug and weed killers are most heavily sprayed to help cotton, grapes and oranges grow.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also uses the fine-grained data when figuring out how chemicals should be regulated, and which pesticides pose the greatest risk to public health.

Joe Reilly, an acting administrator at the National Agricultural Statistics Service, said the program was cut because the agency could no longer afford to spend the $8 million the survey sapped from its $160 million annual budget.

“Unless new funds are made available there’s not much that we can do,” Reilly said.

While the agency “hates eliminating any report that is actually needed out in the American public,” he said consumers could find similar data from private sources.

Still, only a handful of the major agricultural chemical companies spend the approximately $500,000 it costs to buy a full set of the privately collected data each year, according to a letter written by an advisory committee to the agency.

Most farmers can’t afford to pay for the information and environmental groups use it to analyze which chemicals could turn up in local water supplies or endanger critical species.

Eliminating the program “will mean farmers will be subjected to conjecture and allegations about their use of chemicals and fertilizer,” said Don Lipton, a spokesman for the American Farm Bureau. “Given the historic concern about chemical use by consumers, regulators, activist groups and farmers, it’s probably not an area where lack of data is a good idea.”

Pesticide companies also rely on the program when they’re looking to reregister agricultural chemicals, said Beth Carroll, a senior stewardship manager with Syngenta Crop Protection, Inc.

Reilly said the agency would “love to reinstate the program,” but said for now it will only do key surveys. Those include the monthly crop report, which influences commodity prices on the futures market, and livestock reports, which set the price for hogs and cattle.

At a time when consumers are increasingly curious about what goes into their food, farmers, chemical companies and advocacy groups said the cuts would have wide-ranging affects.

“What we’ll end up doing is understanding pesticide use through getting accident reports,” said Steve Scholl-Buckwald, managing director at the San Francisco nonprofit Pesticide Action Network. “And that’s a lousy way to protect public health.”

National Agricultural Statistics Service: http://www.nass.usda.gov , The Organic Center: http://www.organic-center.org
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