Friday, April 25, 2014
EPA gets it wrong on kids & drift
On Cesar Chavez Day, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) delivered a slap in the face to that day’s namesake. Five years after PAN and partners challenged the agency’s lack of protections for children from drifting pesticides — and eight years after Congress passed a law requiring it — the agency yet again failed to take any substantive action.
Frustrated yet? I am. EPA is suggesting it's better to keep pesticides on the market without any new protections, even after acknowledging potentially serious impacts on children. In Monday’s response, EPA stated that “young children may have unique exposures that adults do not have.” And still, the agency has chosen to do next to nothing.
As my colleague and PAN’s policy director Kristin Schafer put it:
"The agency is completely disregarding the urgency of the risks these pesticides are posing, every day, to children's health."
Barely meeting a court-compelled deadline on Monday, EPA was responding to a lawsuit filed by farmworker, environmental and health groups — including PAN — in 2009. For five years, longer than my son has been alive, we have been pushing the agency to fulfill its mandate to protect children’s health from pesticides. What’s more, the agency should have already implemented protections three years ago.
What's the hold up?
EPA's inaction doesn’t just ignore its mission, but also the laws. In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring the agency to set standards to protect children by 2006. When no action was taken, we filed a legal petition. And when the agency failed to respond three years later, in July, we challenged the agency’s “unreasonable delay” in court.
The science highlighting necessary changes to EPA's pesticide evaluation process is very clear. And newresearch and data reinforce what we know, namely that the agency needs to:
- Include children's susceptibility in its evaluation of the impacts of pesticides;
- Protect children from drift when determining how pesticides can be used in agricultural settings;
- Create modest no-spray buffer zones around places where children live, learn and play.
Current farmworker leaders remind us why action is needed. Erik Nicholson, National Vice-President of the United Farm Workers — a plaintiff in the case — put it this way:
"EPA's refusal to act means another entire generation of children will be exposed to harmful pesticides — this is both unnecessary and unacceptable. And farmworker children currently bear and will bear the heaviest burden."
On the same day the agency touted Cesar Chavez’s legacy on it’s website, it announced it won't be taking meaningful action to better protect kids from pesticide drift. The contradiction is unnerving.
Sidestepping the issue
Digging into the details of the EPA’s non-response to the legal petition from PAN and partners, the agency fails to actually address the problems posed by pesticide drift. The summary? Business as usual. Literally. The conclusion of EPA's response acknowledges that the agency fears pushback from the pesticide industry, rather than being committed to proactively standing up for children’s health.
EPA fears pushback from the pesticide industry, rather than being committed to proactively standing up for children’s health.
EPA officials are also hiding behind a process that may or may not produce the necessary changes for some years to come. They are accepting public comments on the way they are currently calculating drift — including immediatespray drift and volatilization drift that often occurs after applications.
It’s already evident that these models are flawed, and based on some bad assumptions. So it would be good news if they were updated to provide for a more robust risk assessment process — and better protections for kids. But it will likely be a long time before new models are completed. And even longer before they're incorporated into the evaluations of new products, or re-evaluations of hazardous products that are already on the market.
No time to wait
As if the evidence wasn’t already compelling enough, two recent articles — one in The Nation and one in The Atlantic — explain the harms. As the body of evidence continues to grow, experts warn that we don’t have time to waste. The current regulatory system can’t move quickly enough to address the problems with pesticides already on the market, much less effectively evaluate the new ones.
As Dr. Phillipe Grandjean, a Harvard School of Public Health professor profiled in several recent news stories — and author of a recent summary of the research of chemical impacts on children’s health — put it: "We don't have the luxury to sit back and wait."
And this should be a lesson to all of us. The farmworker leader and father Chavez spent much of the final years of his life discussing the harms of pesticides, especially to those most vulnerable to exposure. It’s time EPA officials took this to heart and put kids, rather than the pesticide industry, first.
Photo credit: steverts/iStock
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Monday, April 21, 2014
WAIALUA, Hawaii (AP) — You can trace the genetic makeup of most corn grown in the U.S., and in many other places around the world, to Hawaii.
The tiny island state 2,500 miles from the nearest continent is so critical to the nation's modern corn-growing business that the industry's leading companies all have farms here, growing new varieties genetically engineered for desirable traits like insect and drought resistance.
But these same farms have become a flash point in a spreading debate over genetic engineering in agriculture.
Kauai and Hawaii counties have moved in the past several months to regulate genetically modified organisms and the pesticides the farms use. In Maui County, a group is collecting signatures for a potential ballot measure that would impose a temporary ban on the crops.
"People are very concerned, and it's my job as a council member to determine whether those concerns are valid and take steps to protect them," said Gary Hooser, a councilman in Kauai.
Hooser and the council passed a law last year, over the mayor's veto, to require large farms to create buffer zones around their crops and to disclose what pesticides they use. The law is set to take effect in August.
Seed companies with Kauai operations — Syngenta, Pioneer, BASF and Agrigentics — have sued the county to stop the law, saying they are already regulated by state and federal laws and there is no need for additional county rules.
"We don't plant anything that isn't permitted and approved through the proper regulatory agencies, be it the EPA, the FDA and UDSA," said Mark Phillipson, the head of Hawaii corporate affairs for Syngenta, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Hawaii's origins as a critical node in corn production dates to the 1960s when James Brewbaker, a recently arrived researcher at the University of Hawaii, noticed he could plant three crops a year in Hawaii's warm climate instead of one as in most places on the mainland.
Around the same time, Pioneer Hi-Bred was trying to squeeze more research into a year by using greenhouses and farms in Florida. Brewbaker suggested researchers come to Hawaii.
Seed farms grew as research expanded and more land became available as Hawaii's sugar and pineapple plantations became less competitive in the global market and shut down.
As of 2012, the most recent data available, seed crops in Hawaii were worth $217 million, up from $140 million in 2007. About 95 percent of it is corn. In all, they exceed the value of the state's next several largest crops — including sugarcane and macadamia nuts.
Developing a new seed variety takes about 10 to 12 growth cycles, said Phillipson. On the mainland, this could take 10 to 12 years. Being able to get three to four growth cycles a year in Hawaii dramatically shrinks the time it takes to bring a new product to market.
"It's getting your newest and best hybrids to market quickly," said Richard McCormack, who leads Hawaii operations for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, which is part of DuPont and has farms on Kauai and Oahu.
New genes — such as those making corn resistant to drought or floods — are inserted in a lab on the mainland.
Once federal authorities approve new varieties for planting, they're brought to Hawaii for two growth cycles or crop seasons to see how they perform in an actual field. The best ones are sent elsewhere for more growing.
Syngenta, for example, sends its best to fields in Missouri, Manitoba, Canada and Mexico to make sure the corn is able to thrive in the soil, wind conditions and temperatures of these various places, Phillipson said.
Today, about 90 percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered and has been developed partially in Hawaii in this way.
The discontent, however, has been simmering.
There has been little scientific evidence to prove that foods grown from engineered seeds are less safe than their conventional counterparts, but consumer concerns and fears persist — not just in the islands but around the country and rest of the world.
In Hawaii, residents have also expressed concern about pesticides used in the growing of seed crops.
Hooser said he introduced the legislation to get good information that would allow the county to determine whether the seed companies' operations were having any negative effect on the health of Kauai's people and the environment.
Hawaii County, which covers the Big Island, later adopted a law banning the cultivation of genetically modified crops.
The county created an exemption, however, for papayas already grown on the Big Island that have been genetically engineered to resist a virus that nearly wiped out the fruit in years past. No seed companies currently have farms on the island, so they're not affected by the law.
In Maui County, a group called Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina Movement is gathering signatures for a ballot measure to impose the ban until seed companies complete environmental and public health studies find their practices to be safe.
Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, a unit of Dow Chemical, both have farms in Maui County.
State Sen. Clarence Nishihara predicted the wrangling over genetically modified crops will continue, in Hawaii and around the country.
"There's no one side that's going to say, 'OK, we had enough. We've given up on the issue,' right?" said Nishihara, who chairs the state Senate's agriculture committee. "They'll keep fighting it. Isn't that the American way?"