CORVALLIS, Ore. - Indications that the Environmental Protection Agency may take aggressive steps to remove many commonly used agricultural chemicals from the marketplace before replacements for them are ready have alarmed farmers in Oregon and across the nation, one expert says.
Just in the past few months EPA officials have reportedly said that some chemicals might be banned as early as this summer, said Gary Reed, an Oregon State University professor of entomology and superintendent at the OSU Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Hermiston, Ore.
Reed says there is a perception in the agricultural community that the EPA is experiencing pressure from special interest groups to take more restrictive action on the use of farm chemicals.
"Industry people I work with say the EPA appears to be floating trial balloons, saying that some important chemicals may be removed from the market by the middle or end of this growing season," Reed said. "Personally I think that administrators in the EPA will move in a more measured, responsible manner and this will all work out. But it's safe to say that the Oregon agricultural community is up in arms at the moment. Many people think this has the potential to be a real catastrophe."
The possible problems, Reed said, are evolving from the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act that received little public attention at the time it was passed and was, in fact, supported by the agricultural chemical industry. Among other things, it mandates the EPA to reassess for safety - often meaning whether or not they are a carcinogen - more than 9,700 pesticide uses on food crops.
Under particular scrutiny, Reed said, are the organophosphate and carbamate groups of insecticides, although many fungicides, fumigants and nematocides will also be re-examined.
"Although there's no real evidence that any products we use, in the way we use them, are a real threat to human health, there are some lab studies which have found carcinogenic potential in mice with some compounds such as the organophosphates and carbamates," Reed said. "These results, however, occur when these products are tested at unrealistically high concentrations."
"The agricultural chemical industry has actively worked for over 30 years to improve human and environmental safety in pesticides," Reed said. "The result has been a dramatic reduction in the use of hazardous products. Even safer substitutes are under development, but not many of them are ready yet."
Reed said the risk is that regulatory agencies may pull the plug on some very common pesticides before alternatives are available. If that actually happened the results, he added, could be catastrophic.
"Consider the problems facing just one crop such as potatoes, which are a huge industry in Oregon," Reed said. "If we lost the use of the organophosphate and carbamate insecticides used to control the Colorado potato beetle in the Pacific Northwest, you simply wouldn't have a crop. Just a bunch of little potatoes with no value, produced by plants that died too early."
There are no acceptable substitutes presently available for these chemicals, Reed said, and that's with a large, commercially important industry. With the dozens of smaller, less economically dominant fruit, vegetable and ornamental crops produced in Oregon, there is even less effort under way to find replacements for current chemicals.
"And we must also keep in mind that the U.S. chemical industry makes products used all over the world, especially in developing nations," Reed said. "If we stop producing certain chemicals here there are no readily available means to replace them elsewhere. There are already children starving in the world and now we're considering actions that could dramatically reduce the global food supply."
"The bottom line is if the EPA were to come in early and take away some of the most important chemicals we now use, it could have profound effects on everything from potatoes to wheat, fruit and vegetables, and even the chemicals used to kill hair lice," Reed said. "If you eat, it would affect you."
Reed said that there has been a recent, rapid increase in concern among farmers and their industry organizations. The suspicion among many growers, he said, is that under pressure from environmental advocacy groups the EPA is taking a broader interpretation of the Food Quality Protection Act than Congress intended and may take rapid actions that could have severe consequences. Even insecticides used in the "organically-produced" food industry could be affected, he said.
The EPA has indicated it may accelerate the registration process for new, more environmentally-friendly chemicals, Reed said, but he questions whether it has the budget and staffing to do that.
"I think part of the problem here is that so few people live on the farm anymore and have any conception of how our food supply really works," Reed said. "When only 2 percent of the people in the nation live on farms, most people don't understand what it takes to make modern agriculture work.
"America has one of the safest, most affordable food supplies in the world, and the EPA is a fine organization that has done a lot of good for this country," he said. "But before we allow certain special interest groups to pressure our regulatory agencies into hasty or poor decisions, people should look into these issues and protect their own interests."