Everything looks better when your head’s in the sand: The USDA stops tracking pesticide use

When I was four, I ate my mother's houseplant. (I claimed to have thought it was salad.) As any responsible mother would, she freaked out and called poison control. The friendly folks at the 800 number — who must get these kinds of calls all the time, poor guys — immediately asked her the two most important questions one could ask in this situation: "What kind?" (decorative fern) and "How much?" (the tips of several fronds.) Needless to say, I survived.

Those two basic questions — what kind and how much — are key when considering exposure to anything that could poison us, whether it's houseplants or, say, pesticides. Indeed, since 1991, the USDA's statistics arm has asked those same questions of agricultural producers across the nation in order to find out what kinds of pesticides are being used on U.S. crops and how much of them are applied. The results, published in the annual Agricultural Chemical Usage Reports, are the only reliable, national, publicly-available source of data on pesticide use. Want to know how much atrazine was used on corn in Ohio in 2004? The Chemical Use Database can tell you.

That is, it could. Until recently.

Last year, ostensibly because of budget cuts, the USDA scaled back the surveys to cover only a few crops. Then early this year, in a cryptic notice published deep in the Federal Register, the agency announced that all chemical-use surveys would be suspended until at least 2010. In other words, the government will no longer be keeping track of what kinds of pesticides are used on U.S. crops, nor how much.

That means that anyone wishing to know — scientists studying pesticide impacts, government researchers tracking the success of programs that help farmers reduce pesticide use, communities trying to figure out what the hell is in their water — won't be able to access that information. It's as if my mom had called poison control and the guy on the line had just laughed and said "Good luck!" (For more info on the history of the survey and the suspension, see this letter [pdf] sent Tuesday by 45 public-interest organizations to the USDA.)

I realize that the suspension of pesticide-use tracking sounds pretty wonky (though coming from me, what else is new?) and may not have you pounding on your keyboard with anger quite yet. So here are three concrete reasons why we should care:

Mounting evidence suggests that pesticides are really messing us up. And I mean really. We already know that pesticides have been linked to myriad health problems, including reproductive abnormalities, developmental delays, and autism. New research from India released last weekend suggests that the effects of pesticide exposure on farmers, farmworkers, and rural communities could be even more profound: Scientists found that some pesticides actually "significantly alter" the DNA of people exposed to them, making them much more prone to cancer than they would be otherwise. Similar research is currently being conducted in California's Central Valley. To put it bluntly, then, the USDA has just eliminated our access to public data about the use of substances that may be altering the very structure of our DNA. There is other data out there, but it's proprietary and so expensive that even the federal government has balked at buying it, according to the NGO letter cited above. Chemical companies purchase it — but something tells me they're not gonna want to share, particularly not when a class-action lawsuit full of cancer victims comes a-knockin'.

Pesticides are killing bee populations, which are critical to a functioning food system. The German government's Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety announced yesterday that it was revoking its approval of several pesticides produced by chem-giants Bayer and Syngenta based on tests that linked the toxics to widespread bee colony collapse. Hmm... haven't we been having similar problems here in the U.S.? Now say you're a scientist looking into the relationship between pesticide use and pollinator populations. You'd probably want data on pesticide use. Yeah -- good luck with that.

Our nation's pesticide body-burden may be growing fast, thanks to GM crops. We've all heard the claim that genetically-modified crops such as Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn reduce pesticide use. (Today, roughly 60% of corn and 90% of soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified.) Research suggests, however, that while pesticide use was lower on GM crops than non-GM for the first few years that these seeds were on the market, herbicide-resistant weeds have emerged on GM fields at alarming rates, requiring large increases in the amount of pesticides used on those fields.

How do we know this? Why, the USDA's pesticide use database! How convenient for GM proponents that we won't have access to that data anymore. Just a coincidence, I'm sure.

I'm getting really, really tired of the Bush Administration's attack on public access to information. From letting CAFOs out of reporting their air pollution to an attempt to prohibit the USDA from telling farmers about less-toxic pesticide alternatives (which, BTW, was not included in the final version of the Farm Bill, yay!), the Bushies seem intent on keeping us from knowing about many of the worst impacts of our food system. It goes without saying — but I'll say it anyway: Without that knowledge, we'll have a bear of a time holding anyone accountable for the unforeseen side effects of pesticides on the environment, workers, their children, and our own.

Something tells me that's just the way they like it.

First photo courtesy of iStock photo; second by me, taken in California's Central Valley.

7 Responsesto “Everything looks better when your head’s in the sand: The USDA stops tracking pesticide use”

  1. tasterspoon says:

    I'm definitely pounding my keyboard.  Arrgh!  This kind of story should headline the nightly news.  The implications are so scary.   

  2. Anastasia says:

    Um, I'm pretty sure that all weeds are Bt resistant, considering that Bt is an insecticidal toxin. Might want to double check that one.
    It is really disappointing to hear they are cutting funding to this obviously important program. Unfortunately, a lot of USDA programs have been cut lately. Not a conspiracy, just Republicans doing their job.
    I wonder if there are plans to have the EPA pick up the slack. It would make more sense for the EPA to collect the data, fewer possible conflicts of interest that way. Plus the EPA might be able to pull more public support thus collect more government $.

  3. Elanor says:

    Anastasia- Right! Thanks for catching that. I was having a brain lapse... It's been fixed.

  4. Lasserday says:

    thanks for putting this information out there, i don't know how i would have ever learned it, otherwise.  scary stuff.

  5. Corn Maven says:

    Anastasia, I fear the EPA works in a similar fashion. For example, watch this video of a Bill Moyer's Journal segment I just saw tonight on BPA or Bisphenal A, a chemical found in many plastics, about a recent exposé by the Milwaukee Sentinal, who "examine[d] why, even though studies show that the chemical Bisphenol A can cause cancer and other health problems in lab animals, the manufacturers, their lobbyists, and U.S. regulators [such as the EPA] say it's safe."
    Of course, and unfortunately, there are many more examples out there of EPA mischief denials of harm of suspected endocrine disruptors.
    It was the EPA who continue to support the use of the herbicide Atrazine by farmers, declaring it's runoff poses no risk to our drinking water. However, research conducted by UC Berkeley professor Tyrone Hayes has shown sexual abnormalities/deformities in frogs to be caused by Atrazine.
    Not too surprisingly, his research has been called into question by both Syngenta and the EPA. (Now there's a dynamic duo.) Here's an article by Minnesota Public Radio on Dr. Hayes' talk to Mayo clinic doctors in 2007, about Atrazine's links to cancer in humans. Or just google "Tyrone Hayes" + "Atrazine" + "EPA" for more about this.
     

  6. Summer says:

    This is definitely disappointing news. California's Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) tracks agricultural pesticide use at the Township/Range level. The pesticide use is reported to the County Agricultural Commissioners by the registered pesticide applicators (required for all registered agricultural pesticides), who in turn report the data to DPR. Required information includes crop treated, acreage treated, pounds applied, method of application. The data are downloaded by county or crop via a pretty easy to use web portal. Doing GIS analysis of the data takes some manipulation and crunching (for example, by watershed). The data are available 2 years after they are reported, to allow for data validation and quality control.

    To my knowledge, no tracking is in place for home use of pesticides.

  7. eSutras says:

    This is so incredibly frustrating - that Americans are slowly but surely being destroyed from within! 
    Is this not of OF GLOBAL IMPORTANCE?
    Why are people not reporting this atrocity everywhere?
    By definition, pesticides are chemical substances used to kill animal, insect, plant and fungal pests in agricultural, domestic and institutional settings. Do they kill? They absolutely do, and more than just pests.
    The World Health Organization estimates that 200 000 people die every year world- wide from pesticide poisonings, with 3 million such poisonings annually. Acute poisonings do not tell the entire picture, as ominous as those numbers are on their own.
    According to the World Health Organization, in 2005, 80 percent of the world’s population still relies on traditional medicines, yet 1 in every 8 species of plant faces extinction. Only 1 percent of tropical plants have been screened for any kind of medicinal use, vital knowledge that is often enshrined in indigenous ritual, ceremony, and oral histories.

    And now with this new policy - not only can they destroy Mother Nature but actually prevent us the ethical citizen from knowing how?

    What a world we live in!
    Aisha Bauer from http://www.esutras.com