A new report charges that county ag commissioners throughout California are issuing too many permits for “toxic pesticides” and should encourage more alternative treatments to protect the state’s high-value specialty crops. But critics are firing back, suggesting that the authors ignored key components of the way pesticides are regulated and approved.

The report, titled “Governance on the Ground: Evaluating the Role of County Agricultural Commissioners in Reducing Toxic Pesticide Exposures,” was written by researchers at UCLA and the University of Southern California. It recommends new policies for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), including recommendations that commissioners and pesticide control advisers (PCAs) should always urge growers of almond, strawberry, citrus and other fruits and vegetables to purchase and apply alternatives to products like chlorpyrifos.

The paper adds that commissioners should advise growers beforehand on the presumed risks of cumulative exposure and the hypothetical scenarios of mixing chemicals. Cumulative exposure occurs when growers apply two or more pesticides to the same or adjacent fields.

“The law here is very clear,” said Timothy Malloy, the report’s lead author and a UCLA professor of law and of environmental health sciences. “Before issuing these permits, the county agricultural commissioners must evaluate potential cumulative exposures and must consider safer alternatives to the proposed pesticide use. That isn’t happening.”

According to the report, “These pesticides present substantial health risks to farm workers, bystanders and nearby residents, as well as significant ecological impacts.”

A “false foundation” of research

Joel Nelsen, strategic advisor and past president of California Citrus Mutual, has heard the environmental arguments behind the report and for decades has been familiar with the efforts of UCLA Professor Emeritus John Froines, a key author in the report.

“John Froines has been anti-pesticide since he’s been a Ph.D.,” said Joel Nelsen, strategic advisor and past president of California Citrus Mutual. “An ag commissioner is not in business to be promoting a particular material. That would be a brand endorsement. That’s not their job.”

Nelsen compared pesticide evaluation to medicine. He said the report makes assumptions on how much time a commissioner should spend on an evaluation. Like a pharmacist, he said, commissioners can offer expert guidance much more rapidly than a lay person. 

According to Nelsen, the report also ignores “the entire registration system that exists in the United States.” Materials are registered for use nationally with a 10-fold safety factor assessment regarding risk, use and detection.

“Use and detection does not connotate risk,” he said. “If it did, you would remove every aspirin bottle from store shelves, because if a person took a whole bottle of aspirins, they’re going to die.”

Nelsen said the report also ignores the pesticide registration process for cumulative risk, which the EPA reviews and updates every 10 years. He said the last presidential administration “flip-flopped” on the scientific evaluation in that review, the process was never updated as a result and the report is based on that flawed assessment. The Trump administration has since returned to the earlier process for risk evaluation.

DPR also does its own analysis. Nelsen pointed out that department has registered chlorpyrifos for several years, has reevaluated the process and has concluded that if a field is sprayed for 21 days with a child nearby that would be a severe risk.

“No one ever sprays a grove, a field or anything for 21 consecutive days,” said Nelsen.

The report also uses data leading up 2016, when the chlorpyrifos use began dropping. Product use continued to fall off in 2017 and Nelsen argued it was likely down significantly in 2018 because of the standards DPR put in place. He said this information is easily accessible and called it a “false foundation” to not include the more recent data.

"We’ve been doing 100 percent pesticide use reporting in California for over a quarter of a century,” said Nelsen. “It’s there; he just didn’t want to do it because it’s too much work.”

Growers are already in the habit of alternating pesticide use and minimizing the amount of material needed to control the pests, he said. Applying the same material year-after-year would build up a resilience to the pesticide. He said the report assumes a constant flow of the same material is given to a field.

The report also “ignores the education mandates” requiring PCAs to learn about the alternative materials, identify any resistance and advise on the best solution, he said, adding that some alternatives are actually destructive to Integrated Pest Management programs.

“They zeroed in on a specific set of materials and tried—and failed—to identify a flaw in an existing system that has been touted around the country as one of the most difficult and toughest as far as pesticide use is concerned,” he said.

Recalling a quote from former President Eisenhower, Nelsen said: “Farming looks easy when your plow is a pencil, your desk is a farm and you're a thousand miles from the corn field.”

In response to the report, Executive Director Sandy Elles of the California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association (CACASA) pointed out that California is the only state to require restricted materials permits and to have a local system of commissioners to oversee and enforce pesticide safety.

Elles said that CACASA will review the report and “discuss opportunities to further enhance public safety and protection of the environment and natural resources.”

“The scientific literature and guidance for assessing cumulative effects is still relatively new and has not been fully vetted,” said DPR spokesperson Charlotte Fadipe in a written statement. “We want growers to use the least toxic pesticide, and so alternative analysis of hazardous pesticides is important.”

To cover a state with more than 400 crops, 77,000 farms and a broad range of geographical climates, DPR and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established this system of local commissioners to oversee and guide PCAs and growers with each of these specialized needs. DPR is typically the bellwether for national policies when it comes to implementing new regulations based on research into chlorpyrifos and other pesticides.

“Like other reports that come out, we’ll evaluate the program and see how we can improve based on sound science,” said Butte County Ag Commissioner Louie Mendoza.

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