During a webinar Tuesday, the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) solicited ideas for a new statewide system to notify residents ahead of pesticide applications. The department plans to launch the program in 2024 through a $10 million state budget allocation. Many details have yet to be resolved, leading to escalating conflicts between agricultural interests and environmental groups as well as county agricultural commissioners and DPR.

To guide the process going forward, DPR released five principles that aim to protect public health, improve equity and transparency, complement existing regulations, prioritize by health impacts and encourage communication.

Environmental justice advocates called for the immediate launch of a system that would be available to the broad public through a web portal and with a minimum of 72-hour notice. Jane Sellen, who directs Californians for Pesticide Reform, referenced a study published in June by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles. The study found 667 cases of childhood central nervous system tumors and 123,158 controls among children due to potential exposure in pregnant mothers between 1998 and 2011. Sellen and several other advocates say they are worried DPR and public health agencies are not adequately tracking such cumulative impacts of pesticide exposure.

But that study did not seem to separate out any other risk factors such as air quality, in-home pesticide use or other environmental factors. In two separate studies, one of those UCLA study’s researchers found that pregnant women exposed to high levels of ultrafine particles from jet airplane exhaust are 14% more likely to have a preterm birth than those exposed to lower levels. And globally, air pollution contributed to the deaths of almost half a million babies under one month old in 2019.

Some of the most acerbic criticism of the administration’s pursuit of a notification system came from San Diego County Farm Bureau Executive Director Hannah Gbeh, who said it unfairly targets family farmers and would further collapse agriculture in the state.

“California farmers do not manufacture these pesticides,” said Gbeh. “Yet our California government is now telling our industry that farmers are responsible to the public to explain why and how these products are used.”

Gbeh described San Diego County as the poster child of issues in the urban-agriculture interface, driving farms out of business and leading to the loss of 10,000 acres, or 4%, of production in one year. She shared accounts of neighbors calling the authorities on farmers when they see dirt from tilling or normal dust.

“The general public does not understand the complexities of the agriculture industry,” she said. “This notification system is going to further confuse the public.”

Instead of “picking on farmers” with a notification system, Gbeh requested DPR put the funding to public education efforts to communicate the rigorous review, testing and permitting processes for determining safety in the state. She argued that California has the strictest regulations in the nation, but also one of the fastest collapsing agricultural economies in the world due to “greenwashing policy proposals” that exacerbate the climate and food crises through overregulation.

Others raised concerns over the potential for notification fatigue, adding more compliance burdens for farmers, liability on growers that could lead to economic losses and reducing flexibility for pesticide applications.

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One commenter, who introduced herself as a pesticide safety educator and researcher, worried the requirement for advanced notice would push applicators toward preventative spraying and away from waiting until absolutely necessary, which would disincentivize integrated pest management practices. Residents would be notified but also potentially exposed to more pesticides.

Julie Henderson, DPR’s new acting director, did not respond to the concerns several farm groups and growers raised, but did recognize the frustration from environmental advocates about the pace the department has been proceeding with the system.

“There are multiple factors that we want to make sure that we're thoughtfully considering so that the system that we put in place is effective and serves the purpose being able to provide people with information that they can take to protect their health,” explained Henderson.

She stressed that the system must be consistent across the state and that DPR needs a stable partnership with county agricultural commissioners to implement the program, since it will rely on the information they provide.

DPR is holding a second listening session Wednesday evening and plans to host more public workshops in early 2022 to inform the design of the system.

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