Brian Leahy directed the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) from 2012 to January 2019. DPR regulates pesticide sales and use, and creates rules that county agricultural commissioners are tasked with enforcing.  Prior to DPR, he was assistant director for the Department of Conservation and executive director of the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts. He was also an organic rice farmer for 23 years and served as director of California Certified Organic Farmers.

Now retired from his government service, Leahy spoke candidly with Agri-Pulse about activist scientists within CalEPA ruling on chlorpyrifos, the societal disconnect when pesticides are seen as evil and removing products without funding research to replace them.

The conversation has been edited for brevity.

  1. What do you see as the biggest milestones from your time at DPR?

When I got there, all the controversial stuff had been sitting there for a decade or more. We just did them. Boom, boom, boom. It didn't please anyone. But regulators are not in the like business.

The science around pesticides is changing. So, we started to do all that training. I had the National Science Academy take a hard look at our process. They said we were very conservative and risk adverse, which, of course, we're California. But we really looked at our process and have been working on improving it.

We really started to work on the non-agricultural side of pesticides. Which is most of the illnesses. Most pesticides sold in the state are non-ag. But those workers and those applicators don't have anywhere near the training that the ag people do. That was a really big deal.

  1. What are the challenges for the next leadership in the department?

What's getting really challenging is society's attitudes towards pesticides.

When surveying Californians, they only think pesticides are used by farmers. They think pesticides are evil. They don't understand the role they play in their lives. The reality is if we don't do good pest management, we lose our food supply, we lose public health, we lose resource management.

There are a lot of institutions in place to benefit from that. The trial attorneys are really looking at glyphosate and things like that. There’s this magnification of fear. I really felt we could do our job, which was to protect humans and help the environment — scientifically based — but we can't protect against fear.

There's only a handful of companies and they're not bringing in new pesticides. Europe has gone totally nuts. Some of our best, most innovative pest control companies, like MarroneBio, can't even get their products into Europe because it's gotten so fear-based. If we don't acknowledge that pest management is essential to human life, we're really cutting ourselves into a deep hole.

DPR has been very pragmatic. They have made improvements by working with the applicators and the companies. We have a very science-based organization and can go toe-to-toe with any scientists from any industry. As a result, we have gotten these companies to make incredible improvements. But we still do effective pest management.

It feels like a lot of the attitude in the other agencies, and I think CalEPA is one, is that you want to find them, you want to beat them up. The right to regulate is not the right to destroy. I saw that as a disconnect from the regulated community. They felt like they shouldn't even talk to them. And so that's scary too. When you work with people, you make improvements.

  1. Have you seen the perceptions from agriculture changing as well?

They're worried. DPR has been very pragmatic. They've been problem solvers. We just saw that with chlorpyrifos. DPR is tied by law to both OEHHA and the Scientific Review Panel (SRP). It went from what we felt like was defense of science to speculative.

The industry feels that and I think they're worried. Once we start taking these things out of science, we just don't know where we're going to go. So glyphosate: imagine what all these terrible fires that we had would have been like if Caltrans and other agencies hadn't been able to control all the weeds. But people are getting tied up in knots on glyphosate, and all herbicides.

Yet no one is putting money into research other than a handful of companies. Society is not finding replacement tools, but they're pushing the existing tools out of the marketplace. That's going to create real public health and public safety issues.

  1. Could you talk about the challenges of working with SRP?

The SRP is interesting. They have been appointing activist scientists. The head for a long time had been one of the Chicago Seven. There are epidemiological studies, which point to something sometimes, but there's not very good protocol around them. And people can really use them to come up with the conclusion they want to see. It’s hard to defend against the statements.

We saw that in chlorpyrifos. (SRP) was very activist. Anything to do with (President) Trump got crazy. It definitely was associated with Trump. There's reason to be concerned about chlorpyrifos and I think that our scientists came to a really good level of protection before it went to SRP.

SRP is (made up of) appointees. And then there's not a lot of accountability at OEHHA (Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment). It's not like they have to turn around and then make people change their behavior, which is what a regulator does. They just throw these numbers out and then DPR would have to respond to it. There's no checks and balances. It was set up in the ‘70s, before we really understood how regulations work. I looked at them as an NGO (non-governmental agency) housed in a government agency. Then Prop 65 —how that has been administered… It sort of bashes small businesses more than anything. It is worrying.

  1. What messages do you have for farmers?

Farmers need to engage, and need to talk about how essential pest management is. If society wants us to do pest management in a certain way, then society is going to have to start to invest in that approach. As an organic farmer, it seemed to me that a biological-based systems approach to pest management is what you want. But the amount of actual research that goes into that is miniscule.

Farmers are heavily regulated. If they follow the label, use common sense and listen to their local conditions here in California, everything should be fine. It's one of the most regulated items in commerce and it's one of the things that we know a lot about.

There's no kind and gentle way to kill things and that's why you use a pesticide. It’s powerful stuff, but auto exhaust can kill you if it's too much.

Farmers need to learn how to engage in a conversation around the tools they need to grow our food. Somehow the people that grow our food have become evil. They become the target that some of these NGOs use. (Farmers) are going to have to learn how to push back on that.

  1. What policies or regulations do you think should be closely watched this year?

The second generation of rodenticides have become very emotional… (Those trying to protect their processing plants, animal livestock and such) need to push back on science that's not necessarily defensible.

With the new administration, it's important for the winegrape growers to get in there and talk to the governor, because he's one of their clan.

Organic is still using pesticides and not getting the yields for the most part. If we're going to look at climate change, if you're using more resources to get less, that's not good. To me farming is biology and technology. You used to just plant a seed and maybe you got five back, if you got lucky. The reason why we can do such incredible agriculture now is because we've put a lot of money and effort into understanding the biology and technology. We’ve got to continue to do that.

If society is asking for a different approach, well, we have to get there. We have irrigation projects because society decided to put a lot of money into irrigation at one point. We have roads because society decided to put a lot of money into roads at one point.