Pesticides, like the huddled masses, yearn to be free
The Farm Bill is back. (Admit it -- you'd been missing it.) House and Senate ag staffers have taken to lurking in each other's offices and furrowing their brows over what could be a protracted conflict between members of the conference committee, that group of reps and senators assigned to turn the meat grinder on two very different versions of the Farm Bill and come out with one homogenized sausage. The process will likely be, as my southern dad often says, uglier than homemade sin.
Aimee Witteman at the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is throwing our citizen-activism engines back into gear on the Farm Bill with an informative series on Gristmill (latest installment here). As is evident from the fact that a concise summary of upcoming Farm Bill issues took a five-part series to cover, there's lots to work on. But today I'd like to focus on one little, tiny provision buried deep in the House's version of the Farm Bill that could have a whopper of an impact -- if the conference committee lets it by. It's nothing less than the scheming child of the Pesticide Liberation Movement.
The provision was inserted at the 11th hour by Virginia republican Bob Goodlatte back when the House passed its version of the bill over the summer. It has a weighty mission: to liberate our most toxic pesticides from the yoke of oppression that has saddled them ever since the environmentalists took power. CropLife, the pesticide industry lobby association, is straining with joy from beneath its chains: Freedom! So close it can almost be tasted!
Kind of like... atrazine in our drinking water, which could very well become more potent if Goodlatte's provision becomes part of the final bill. The provision would prohibit USDA conservation money from being used in any way that discriminates against certain pesticides or classes of pesticides. That means that potentially, important USDA programs -- particularly the Conservation Security Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) -- could not be used to help farmers transition from more toxic to less toxic (or organic) pesticides.
In 2000, EQIP funding was used successfully in Columbus, OH to encourage farmers to limit the use of atrazine, a pesticide that has been found by the EPA to cause cancer and other health problems when it turns up (as it often does) in drinking water. Farmers' compliance saved the city of Columbus $3.1 million in water treatment costs over five years. A similar initiative was implemented in Pennsylvania in the late 1990s. In North Carolina, EQIP funds were used to phase out methyl bromide, a fumigant shown to cause ozone depletion and kill beneficial soil organisms.
But under the Goodlatte provision, these programs could be found to discriminate against atrazine and methyl bromide, and be ruled impermissible.
Proposed changes to the CSP in both the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill would give producers extra points -- moving them higher on the list to receive conservation funding -- for adopting organic practices. But could that be seen as discriminating against synthetic pesticides? Would Goodlatte render the reforms meaningless? Like a GMO, there's just no telling what this provision might do if it makes it out of the mad-science lab and into the sunshine.
The USDA, when pressed, claims that Goodlatte's provision wouldn't really change anything; it's already agency protocol not to promote certain pesticides over others in its messaging. But in reality, USDA conservation funds are being used to phase out toxic pesticides in the food system, as the examples above show. Hard-won gains in places like Columbus could become nothing more than snacks for the toxic beast if that beast is liberated by Goodlatte's 'anti-discrimination' provision.
There are larger, more glamorous topics on the table than Goodlatte, and a million other things to distract the conference committee members when they take up the Farm Bill. But for the sake of our drinking water, our soil microbes, the health of farmworkers and farm families, the health of streams and lakes, and (if I may wax dramatic) the future of the non-chemical food system, I hope the conference committee sees fit to keep the yoke of oppression firmly planted on this one.
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