Chemical Agriculture’s Dirty Fight

by guest blogger Alex Formuzis, of the Environmental Working Group

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began testing fruits and vegetables for pesticide residues in 1991 after the public became concerned about their potential risks to children. Remember Alar? In 1993, at the request of Congress, several top public health experts released a seminal report, Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. Three years later, Congress responded by passing unanimously the federal Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), which required the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to implement health-based standards for all pesticides used in food, with special safeguards for infants and babies.

This flurry of activity grew out of one overarching conclusion embraced by scientists, physicians, policy makers, parents, and the public interest community: Pesticides used in the cultivation of fruits and vegetables can cause serious and lasting harm to young children.

That didn’t stop conventional agribusiness interests from trying hard to water down or remove provisions of the proposed law designed to protect infants and children. The industry argued that it would cut into its profits if it had to take children’s health into consideration.

It lost that fight, but in the years that followed, chemical agriculture has repeatedly gone to the mattresses, enlisting its allies in Congress to try to dismantle the food safety law. And agribusiness is still trying.

In 1999, former Rep. Richard Pombo (R–Calif.) introduced legislation that would have amended FQPA and effectively kept the EPA from protecting children from harmful levels of toxic pesticides. It turned out that Pombo’s bill was a word-for-word copy of a proposal written by the “Implementation Working Group” (IWG), a front group formed by pesticide manufacturers and agricultural trade organizations. Following a meeting with California produce growers, Pombo offered the Regulatory Fairness and Openness Act of 1999.

Fortunately, the defenders of the FQPA rallied to its defense. “The Pombo bill would be a major step backward,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D–Calif.). “It would guarantee that the law we passed would never be implemented.”

Conventional agriculture’s campaign pulled out all the stops to try to weaken or repeal the new pesticide law, marshaling the industry’s publications to disparage both the FQPA and the EPA.

As a Washington Post story by George Lardner Jr. and Joby Warrick noted in May 2000:

Articles and editorials in the farming trade press predicted that continuing with the current law would produce economic disaster for growers and mean less fresh fruit and vegetables for children, who would suffer more illnesses and deaths as a result. One November (1999) article in the magazine The Packer even likened EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner to infamous mass murderer John Wayne Gacy.

Chemical agribusiness’ spokesmen predicted that the safety standards implemented under FQPA would destroy American agriculture. The trade publication InsideEPA (subscription required) reported in May 1999 that:

If the conservative default assumptions allowed under current law (FQPA) are used, some of the pesticides farmers now rely on will likely be pulled from the market, one industry source says. American farmers would be less competitive in the international market and could potentially be driven out of business, this source adds.

In the end, however, the Pombo bill failed, and more than a decade later, there is U.S.-grown food in abundance in every supermarket in the country.

In the years that followed, a number of pesticides that had been considered safe by conventional agriculture were found to be anything but, and EPA banned or restricted their use. And in virtually every instance when a pesticide came under the microscope of public health officials, chemical agribusiness fought to try to block any action by EPA.

In 2006, for instance, EPA completed its FQPA-mandated review of the pesticide carbofuran, concluding that it harmed the nervous and reproductive systems and was too risky for consumers and workers:

All products containing carbofuran generally cause unreasonable adverse effects on humans and the environment and do not meet safety standards, and therefore are ineligible for reregistration.

In December 2009, the agency officially revoked its earlier approval of carbofuran for use on U.S. food crops.

Chemical agriculture fought that decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where, five years later, the Roberts court refused to hear the case (National Corn Growers Association et al v. EPA).

There are plenty of other examples of the industry’s deny-and-delay tactics.

In 2010, when environmental and community groups pressed EPA to restrict chlorpyrifos (aka Lorsban or Dursban), one of Dow AgroSciences’ popular products, industry ran this scare-tactic ad to try to persuade consumers that fresh produce would disappear if that chemical were no longer in produce growers’ toolbox.

The battle goes on. Also in 2010, another agribusiness front group calling itself Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF), which represents many of the same interests that fought the 1996 pesticide law, enlisted the unwitting assistance of American taxpayers when it secured a USDA grant to attack the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Members of The Alliance also lobbied the Obama administration to change how USDA releases the annual pesticide residue tests that EWG uses to produce the Shopper’s Guide.

When the AFF or any representative of chemical agriculture tells consumers pesticides in food are perfectly safe and there is nothing to worry about, remember this history of what its representatives have done, or not done, where public health is concerned.

USDA should be releasing its latest round of pesticide residue tests soon. When it does, EWG will do what we always do: give eaters the best available list of fruits and veggies that carry the highest and lowest levels of pesticides—even if the AFF wishes we wouldn’t.


Alex Formuzis is vice president for media relations at Environmental Working Group. He came to EWG in 2007 after nearly a decade as a senior communications aide to three members of the United States Senate. Prior to his time on Capitol Hill, he was in the public affairs shop of the Clinton Treasury Department and worked on state and national campaigns in his native Washington state.



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