CalEPA’s Department of Pesticide Regulation has unveiled new goals for eliminating or significantly reducing the use of controversial pesticides by 2050. Agricultural groups have been closely watching the years-long process unfold and remain skeptical.

Setting goals to overhaul the industry’s approach to pesticides is only an aspirational pursuit without first building a strong foundation, they argue. That involves fast-tracking new crop protection tools and fully funding pest prevention and educational outreach.

“We got to a place that we can work with,” California Citrus Mutual CEO and President Casey Creamer told Agri-Pulse, in describing his contributions to the evolving policy roadmap. “But the reality is there’s not going to be this huge pot of money that's going to be thrown in this direction.”

Creamer argued that California has long been on a path to banning high-risk pesticides and while the roadmap has not changed that, it has offered an opportunity to draw attention to existing issues in regulating pesticides.

“The state has a major role to play, for one, in prioritizing prevention,” he said. “This document has acknowledged that they haven't done it to the level that’s needed.”

Creamer shared frustrations in putting more responsibility on growers to protect public health, arguing “it shouldn't be on the back of a grower in Tulare County to solve all the problems of a homeowner in Southern California.” Citrus growers have led the charge in preventing the spread of Asian citrus psyllid into commercial orchards from backyard orange trees, despite losing tools like the insecticide chlorpyrifos. The public has a responsibility, too, he argued.

Julie Henderson SPM groupDPR Director Julie Henderson

Creamer hailed the report as a “recognition that we need to look at these things more comprehensively,” rather than taking products away without first finding alternatives or ways to minimize health impacts.

“To us, the goal is to have as many sustainable systems and products available to growers as possible,” said Renee Pinel, president and CEO of the Western Plant Health Association.

Without addressing the “logjam” in DPR’s registration process for new products, she argued, the state will not be successful in its goals. She called for first registering the products with traditional insecticides and herbicides that are already in the queue, with the expectation that manufacturers are developing more sustainable alternatives to eventually serve as replacements.

“You can't go from zero to 100 in five years. This is a goal for 2050,” she said. “If [DPR is] going to wait around until they have perfect products, they are leaving farmers with either old tools or no tools.”

She hopes to see the department to make decisions in scientifically sound ways, outside of political interests.

“If you don't have science leading the way, you will end up having the tail wag the dog,” she said.

Pinel also pressed for fully funding CDFA for pest prevention and to recognize the state cannot keep out even 80% of the pests and needs the tools to treat them once they are in California. Most pests and diseases enter the state through urban and tourism avenues and California’s increasingly mild climate is making it difficult to keep them out, she explained.

California Farm Bureau Administrator Jim Houston was apprehensive the roadmap would alter the Newsom administration’s policy trajectory. He criticized the report as another example of DPR hiring outside consultants to corral stakeholders toward a predetermined conclusion. DPR took a similar approach when commissioning a private firm to consider ways to overhaul the mill assessment. He blasted officials for portraying third-party facilitators as neutral arbitrators.

“This is a solution in search of a problem that's going to raise the price of food,” said Houston. “This is not how government should work.”

He gave credit to DPR for managing the roadmap work group, calling the experience unwieldy, rude and unscientific at times, with “a lot of unrealistic demands” and “a lot of unnecessarily high emotions.”

He worried the cost for implementing the goals will fall to farmers through a bump in mill fees for pesticide sales.

The mood at a press conference last week in UC Davis, however, was cheerfully optimistic.

“I'm very pleased that we're all here to mark such an important milestone for the state of California and really for the nation,” said CalEPA Secretary Yana Garcia. “This group really put their heads together and brought their best thinking, their best energy, their best ideas to the table.”

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross said prevention is “still going to be strategy number one,” with practical tools to respond to infestations, and she saluted the work of UC Davis as a land grant university.

“What has made us the most innovative, progressive farmers over history has been our investment in research and the extension of those research findings to the practical application in the field,” said Ross. “We see the university as our bridge from where we are in agriculture today to the future that we want it to be. And that's what this roadmap is all about.”

Don Cameron, president of the State Board of Food and Agriculture and a work group member, noted that California likely has the world’s highest standards for pesticide regulation.

“We can do better,” he said, “with investments in research and funding to support new innovations in pest and disease management.”

When asked about funding the roadmap’s ambitious goals, Secretary Garcia described CDFA’s climate-smart agriculture programs as playing a critical role and said the next step for the roadmap is to identify the highest priority goals to begin implementing in the next five years.

“Of course, it is an economic downturn. Yes, we're looking at a recession,” said Garcia. “But we also really need to prioritize this. We'll be doing that in various ways—TBD on how that's going to play out.”

She noted the agency’s draft concept for overhauling the mill assessment will have “cross references” to the strategies laid out in the roadmap. The urgency for environmental justice for farmworkers and others, she added, will continue to drive the state’s transition to safer pesticide practices. But the administration is also seeking to “ensure that we are building a sustainable agricultural future, that we are baking in the longevity of agricultural production.”

DPR Director Julie Henderson added that despite the challenging budget year, the roadmap details a longer-term plan and the focus right now is on keeping that momentum moving forward.

“This isn't a goal that we can achieve tomorrow,” said Henderson. “It's really looking at what resources do we have today that we can use to get this launched and off the ground.”

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