USDA Dropping Shroud over Pesticide Use Data
by Sean Moulton, 5/28/2008
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced May 21 that it is eliminating the only program that tracks pesticide use in the United States. The USDA claimed it can no longer afford the program, known as the Agricultural Chemical Usage Reports. Consumers, environmental organizations, scientists, and farmers oppose the move. The Agricultural Chemical Usage Reports, collected by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), are the only publicly available data on pesticide use in the country. Since at least 1991, NASS has produced the detailed annual report widely used for scientific, consumer, and business research. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and local governments have also depended on this information in developing chemical risk assessments and pesticide use policies.
The USDA announcement marks the final blow to a program that has been steadily eroded over the last few years. The annual survey had been reduced to a biennial report, and in 2007, reports were only collected on cotton, apple, and organic apple crops. NASS announced that only "key" surveys will be done during the 2008 growing season. According to NASS acting administrator Joe Reilly, these will include monthly crop and livestock reports, meaning a comprehensive year-end survey or report will not be produced.
NASS officials claimed they regret having to cut the program but said that they can no longer dedicate the resources required to run the program, which costs $8 million of the service's $160 million annual budget. Reilly said he "hates eliminating any program that is actually needed out in the American public," but justified doing so since similar data is available from private sources.
The private reports are cost-prohibitive to most, however — as much as $500,000 per year for some — and only a few of the major agricultural chemical companies buy them. According to a coalition of environmental and public interest organizations, these private data sets are of lower quality and reliability than the NASS data. Proprietary concerns inhibit the disclosure of collection methodology and perhaps even compromise it. NASS's Advisory Committee on Agricultural Studies estimated that "a large number of the area wide estimates … are based on individual or statistically unrepresentative observations."
Without these reports, farmers' decisions about what pesticides to use on their crops will be less informed and could lead to significant errors. Don Lipton from the American Farm Bureau also sees the accurate reports as the best defense against allegations of irresponsible chemical use. "Given the historic concern about chemical use by consumers, regulators, activist groups, and farmers," he said, "it's probably not an area where lack of data is a good idea."
For the American public, the lack of information on pesticide use is also a problem. "If you don't know what's being used, then you don't know what to look for," said Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at The Organic Center. "In the absence of information, people can be lulled into thinking that there are no problems with the use of pesticides on food in this country."
"What we'll end up doing," said Steve Scholl-Buckwald, managing director of Pesticide Action Network, "is understanding pesticide use through getting accident reports." A coalition of 44 environmental, sustainable farming, and health advocacy organizations called on USDA to reverse its plan to eliminate the pesticide reporting program and to restore surveys of a wide variety of crops on an annual basis.