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.