(Beyond Pesticides, May 22, 2008) Before the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) yesterday released its scaled-back annual report on 2007 pesticide use in U.S. agriculture, a coalition of 44 environmental, sustainable farming, and health advocacy organizations, including Beyond Pesticides, called on USDA to reverse its plan to eliminate its pesticide reporting program in 2008. Elimination of USDA’s objective data will open the door wide to serious misinformation on pesticide use, charge the groups. USDA claims it lacks funding to continue the program.
“Americans are rightly concerned about the adverse impacts of pesticides on human health and the environment,” said Charles Benbrook, PhD, chief scientist at The Organic Center. “Without USDA’s data, our organizations will be severely hampered in our ability to carry out research on the impacts of pesticides and offer informed input on decision-making regarding pesticide use and pest management systems in American agriculture.”
Dr. Benbrook, former executive director of the Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences, has used USDA’s pesticide data extensively in his work for many years.
“We strongly oppose this move by USDA to cut the legs off its publicly available database. Denying the public and regulatory agencies this critical information is bad science and bad public relations,” said Jennifer Sass, PhD, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
State pesticide officials and major agribusiness groups have also objected to USDA’s plan to end its pesticide survey and reporting program, say the groups. Others who rely on USDA data include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), academic scientists, and USDA’s Office of Pest Management Policy.
The USDA program, which is run by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), has already been dramatically scaled back, note the groups. Pesticide use on the most chemical-intensive crops – corn, soybeans and cotton – was surveyed every year in the 1990s, but only every two years through most of this decade. Data for pesticide use on corn has not been reported since 2005. Yesterday’s 2007 report covers chemicals applied to just two crops – cotton and apples (including separate surveys on conventional and organic apples).
NASS breaks down chemical use by crop, pesticide and state, and its data are based on rigorous, statistically representative surveys of farmers in the major states where the respective crops are grown.
In their letter to secretary of agriculture Ed Schafer, the groups note that alternative sources of pesticide use information are both unaffordable and unreliable. Private firms charge upwards of $500,000 per year for such information, well beyond the resources of civil society groups. In addition, the data are unreliable, as they are often based on unrepresentative sampling methodologies that the firms keep secret as proprietary information.
“Without USDA’s data, we will no longer be able to reliably track trends in pesticide use, such as the substantial spike in the use of herbicides over the past six years,” said Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety.
Mr. Freese notes that herbicides (i.e. weed killers) comprise nearly two-thirds of pesticides applied in the U.S., and that the use of weed killers has been on the rise – since 2002 on soybeans and cotton, and since 2003 on corn.
“Reliable, objective data are the bedrock of good public policy and a fundamental part of the mission of NASS. We should not accept lack of funding as an excuse for not providing essential data on pesticide use,” said Margaret Mellon, PhD, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.