Farm groups say the California Department of Pesticide Regulation's decision to ban chlorpyrifos undermines producers' ability to grow a safe, healthy and abundant food supply.
“California farmers are resilient," says Tom Nassif, Western Growers' president and chief executive officer. "But the long-term viability of our farms in California depends on proper support from the Administration and renewed cooperation of the state’s regulatory agencies, especially in light of the many other unique and expensive regulations that place California farmers at a growing competitive disadvantage.”
The DPR on May 8 announced its intent to ban chlorpyrifos within two years if not sooner. The move follows the pesticide's formal designation in April as an air pollutant that could be hazardous to human health. Some groups question the validity of the science behind the designation.
“The decision to ban chlorpyrifos is not surprising given the significant pressure from anti-pesticide groups, active legislative proposals, regulatory proceedings, and ongoing court battles,” says California Citrus Mutual President Casey Creamer. “However, this decision relies heavily on an evaluation that was significantly flawed and based upon unrealistic modeling scenarios that are not verifiable by actual results in DPR’s own air monitoring network.”
Chlorpyrifos is used to control pests on a variety of crops, including alfalfa, almonds, citrus, cotton, grapes and walnuts, although its use has greatly declined in the past decade. The state Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Food and Agriculture promise that Gov. Gavin Newsom's revised budget proposal, due out this month, will include $5.7 million to support the transition to safer, more sustainable alternatives.
Newsom also plans to convene a working group to identify, evaluate and recommend alternative pest management solutions, officials say. The funding must be approved by the Legislature.
A competitive disadvantage
Nassif argues that California farmers already have a reputation for being committed to food safety, environmental sustainability and worker and community safety, noting that growers strive at "every turn" to use water, fertilizer and pesticides efficiently. However, the reputation has come at a cost.
Operating in "the most stringent regulatory environment in the world," California growers don't have access to tools that are available to many of its global competitors, he says.
“With yesterday’s announcement that DPR will initiate the cancellation of chlorpyrifos, one of the most widely studied and globally approved insecticides, California farmers now stand to lose yet another arrow in their quiver – without effective and ready replacement tools – making their quest to grow the safest, healthiest and most abundant food supply in the world even more difficult," Nassif says.
Growers' use of chlorpyrifos in California dropped more than 50 percent from two million pounds in 2005 to just over 900,000 pounds in 2016, according to the DPR's most recent statistics. Grower use has waned as the state has placed stricter controls on the pesticide, which acts as a contact or stomach poison to pests.
In 2015, DPR designated chlorpyrifos as a “restricted material” that requires a permit from the county agricultural commissioner for its application. In addition, applications of chlorpyrifos must be recommended by a licensed pest control advisor and supervised by a licensed certified applicator.
Pesticide labeled toxic
In April, chlorpyrifos was formally listed as a “toxic air contaminant," which California law defines as “an air pollutant which may cause or contribute to an increase in mortality or an increase in serious illness, or which may pose a present or potential hazard to human health.” The listing requires DPR to develop control measures to protect the health of farmworkers and others living and working near where the pesticide is used, the agency explains in a news release.
“California’s action to cancel the registration of chlorpyrifos is needed to prevent the significant harm this pesticide causes children, farm workers and vulnerable communities,” says CalEPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld. “This action also represents a historic opportunity for California to develop a new framework for alternative pest management practices.”
Officials say their decision to ban chlorpyrifos follows mounting evidence, including recent findings by the state’s independent Scientific Review Panel on Toxic Air Contaminants, that the pesticide causes serious health effects in children and other sensitive populations at lower levels of exposure than previously understood. These effects include impaired brain and neurological development.
But Citrus Mutual's Creamer asserts there were flaws in the way the chemical was evaluated, noting the study's "exaggerated" result "sets a terrible precedent for future evaluations and creates a chilling effect on companies planning on making significant investments to bring new products to the market in California.”
He notes that the decision comes as the citrus industry is "fighting feverishly" against the deadly tree disease huanglongbing, which has been found in hundreds of residential trees in Southern California. The Asian citrus psyllid, which can carry huanglongbing, has been found in commercial groves, and University of California experts say it's inevitable that HLB will follow.
Florida lost production
“The once mighty citrus producing state of Florida has lost 70 percent of its production due to this disease, which is expanding exponentially in residential citrus trees in Southern California at this very moment," Creamer says. "While our commercial growers will remain vigilant, it is vital that our policy makers recognize the seriousness of the threat and ensure sound scientific procedures are followed.”
Growers of tree nuts and other commodities have complained they have few alternatives for use on certain destructive pests. For instance, while many pests have responded to alternative treatments, almond growers have said that no other tool but chlorpyrifos will work against leaffooted plant bugs and stink bugs, which feed on and damage developing nuts.
DPR officials say they consulted with the CDFA, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, and California Air Resources Board in making their decision and that leaving the pesticide on the market with even stricter controls would not be feasible.
The proposed cancellation of permits for chlorpyrifos would affect dozens of agricultural products containing the pesticide, state officials say. Chlorpyrifos has been prohibited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for residential uses since 2001.
During the cancellation process, DPR’s recommendations to county agricultural commissioners for tighter permit restrictions on the use of chlorpyrifos will remain in place. These include a ban on aerial spraying, quarter-mile buffer zones and limiting use to crop-pest combinations that lack alternatives. The agency's officials call for aggressive enforcement of these restrictions.
“California Citrus Mutual will continue to be actively engaged in the regulatory processes around the cancellation decision," Creamer says, "and will continue to explore all potential remedies to allow the safe and effective use of chlorpyrifos.”