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EPA workplan offers farmers certainty on pesticides

Getty Images/iStock Photos Pesticide soybean field GettyImages-896013740.jpg
Workplan to ensure pesticide registrations, including consultations, are both timely and legally defensible.

Embattled by court cases and pesticide approval inefficiencies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its first-ever comprehensive workplan to address the decades-old challenge of protecting endangered species from pesticides. The plan establishes four overall strategies and dozens of actions to adopt those protections while providing farmers, public health authorities and others with access to pesticides.

EPA explains it has an opportunity and an obligation to improve how it meets its duties under the Endangered Species Act when it registers pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. For most of EPA’s history, the agency has met these duties for less than 5% of its FIFRA decisions. This has resulted in over 20 ESA lawsuits against EPA, which have increased in frequency in recent years, creating uncertainty for farmers and other pesticide users, unnecessary expenses and inefficiencies for EPA, and delays in how EPA protects endangered species.

“Today’s workplan serves as the blueprint for how EPA will create an enduring path to meet its goals of protecting endangered species and providing all people with safe, affordable food and protection from pests,” says EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “The workplan reflects EPA’s collaboration with other federal agencies and commitment to listening to stakeholders about how they can work with the Agency to solve this longstanding challenge.” 

EPA currently has over 50 pesticide ingredients, covering over 1,000 pesticide products, with court-enforceable deadlines to comply with the ESA or in pending litigation alleging ESA violations. Completing this work will take EPA past 2040, yet the work represents less than 5% of all the FIFRA decisions in the next decade for which ESA obligations exist.

This is an “unsustainable and legally tenuous situation,” EPA says in which EPA’s schedule for meeting its ESA obligations has historically been determined through the courts. The workplan must provide a path for the agency to meet those obligations on its own, thus protecting endangered species while supporting responsible pesticide use, EPA explains. 

However, although the workplan has good intentions, this may make the registration and re-registration process longer and require farmers to do more mitigation actions, such as larger buffer strips.

EPA explains the workplan sets a new vision for a successful ESA-FIFRA program that focuses on protecting species under the ESA, while minimizing regulatory impacts to pesticide users, supporting the development of safer technologies to control pests, completing timely FIFRA decisions and collaborating with other agencies and stakeholders on implementing the plan.

The workplan describes four strategies and multiple actions to further the vision.

  • A key strategy is for EPA to meet its ESA obligations for all FIFRA actions that invoke ESA. Because EPA does not have the capacity or scientific processes in place to meet all these obligations immediately, it has identified the FIFRA actions that are the highest priority for fulfilling its ESA obligations. These include actions with court-enforceable deadlines and new registrations of conventional pesticides.
  • A second strategy is to improve approaches to identifying and requiring ESA protections, especially for species facing the greatest risk from pesticides.
  • A third strategy is to improve the efficiency and timeliness of the ESA consultation process for pesticides, in coordination with other federal agencies.
  • And the final strategy is to engage stakeholders more effectively, to better understand their pest control practices and implement species protection measures. 

EPA has held numerous internal strategy sessions and workshops to identify practical steps the agency will pursue under the ESA-FIFRA workplan. In the coming months, EPA says it will offer more details on implementing the workplan, especially actions to adopt mitigation earlier in its FIFRA process and to meet its ESA obligations when reevaluating pesticides every 15 years.

Working together with stakeholders

Over the coming months, EPA says it will engage with a wide range of stakeholders to identify opportunities for collaboration and will continue seeking input on more effective and efficient ways to meet its ESA obligations. “The workplan is a living document that EPA will periodically revisit to incorporate lessons learned from implementation,” the agency adds.

USDA Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie says USDA appreciates the steps EPA is taking. “We are confident that EPA can streamline ESA consultations around pesticides in a way that continues to conserve wildlife while allowing farmers access to the tools they need to produce the food and fiber that all of us rely on,” Bonnie says.

Chris Novak, CropLife America president and CEO, says the workplan to balance wildlife protection and responsible pesticide use is an important step in protecting threatened and endangered species, ensuring farmers and other pesticide users have needed tools for managing pests, and providing regulatory certainty for the product. 

“CropLife America and its members have been working with environmental organizations, farm groups and federal agencies to build consensus around a better process that accomplishes these objectives,” Novak says. “The EPA, the Fish & Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service need the resources—both funding and staff—to help ensure that pesticide registrations, including consultations, are both timely and legally defensible.”

The American Soybean Association says it is still reviewing the workplan but appreciates that EPA is considering how to tackle challenges the Endangered Species Act poses to the pesticide program and grower access to these much-needed tools.

“Pesticides are not only necessary to protect crops, but also for enabling important conservation practices, such as no-till and cover crops,” ASA says in an email statement. “We are pleased the workplan affirms the agency’s intent for mitigations to be flexible and workable for producers. ASA will continue to review the plan but aims to take EPA up on its commitment to engage with stakeholders to ensure ESA implementation works for U.S. soybean growers.”

Martha Williams, U.S. Fish and Wildlife service director, says, "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is eager to help EPA achieve its vision to protect federally listed threatened and endangered species while fulfilling its obligations related to authorizing the safe use of pesticides."

"NOAA supports the Environmental Protection Agency’s ESA-FIFRA workplan and looks forward to continued collaboration with our interagency partners to ensure the protection of federally listed species and their habitats. Implementation of this work plan will lead to a more consistent and timely regulatory process, and better outcomes for our species and our partners," says National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Rick Spinrad.

 

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