(Beyond Pesticides, October 8, 2008) In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) abruptly halted its program that tracks pesticide usage in fruits, vegetables and field crops, only to have the U.S. Senate in July put the program back in the 2009 Senate budget bill. USDA cited the $8 million program expense as the reaon for the reports’ demise, however the move left scientists, public advocates and even industry groups surprised and concerned about carrying out their work without this information.
The Agricultural Chemical Usage Reports, launched in 1990 and administered by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), issues pesticide usage data on crops, having been initiated in response to public concerns over the contamination of apples by the pesticide Alar.The information was also widely used by universities and food industry researchers to help farmers monitor and reduce the amount of pesticides they use.
“We looked at the budget and said, “We can’t do everything we have been doing, and what are we going to get rid of?” said Mark Miller of NASS.
However, a coalition of public interest groups which included Beyond Pesticides, NRDC, the Center for Food Safety, and the Union of Concerned Scientists argued that the Agricultural Chemical Usage data are the only reliable, publicly available source of data on pesticide and fertilizer use outside of California. Elimination of the program would have severely hampered efforts to make informed policy decisions on pesticide use, and also made it difficult to track progress in meeting policy commitments to reduce the use of hazardous pesticides through adoption of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices and to support IPM research.
“Elimination of this program will severely hamper the efforts of the USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), land grant scientists, and state officials to perform pesticide risk assessments and make informed policy decisions on pesticide use,” wrote the coalition of environmental and health groups, in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer.
On July 21, in a surprising turn of events, the Senate Appropriations Committee adopted language that reinstates USDA’s chemical usage reports in the 2009 budget and directed the department not to disrupt ongoing market analysis reporting and to notify the committee in advance of any termination of other programs. It remains unclear however, whether the Senate and the House of Representatives will agree to keep this language in the bill before it is passed into law.
The program has included tests on about 120 different kinds of fruits, vegetables and field crops, such as almonds, olives, spinach, wheat, corn and apples. However, due to annual funding cuts, USDA had been scaling back the program over the last several years, alternating which fruits and vegetables are tested. In 2007, USDA tested only cotton and apples, according to Mr. Miller. The decision to pull the program also came as a shock to researchers at EPA and elsewhere who have come to rely on the data. Termination of these tests would have had implications impacting pesticide regulation. Using this data, EPA regulates pesticide residues in food by setting tolerance levels assigned for certain pesticides, as part of its responsibility mandated under the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA). Although pesticide residues are deemed “allowable,” they still pose potential health risks.
Without pesticide data, USDA and EPA would have to buy expensive privately collected data and relying on older information, which can be unreliable. Purchased data packages can cost about $500,000 to $700,000 a year and without reliable data tolerance limits set by the EPA would fall further into disrepute.