American consumers have one of the safest food supplies in the world, and American farmers have world-renowned technologies available to ensure productivity. Pesticides are one of those critical technologies. America’s farmers are the first-line of defense for ensuring food safety. Unfortunately, during the 2001 growing season, cases of illegal off-label use of agricultural pesticides came to light. State and federal officials discovered off-label or misuse cases in 10 states that involved five pesticides, implicated nearly 300 people, affected more than 50,000 acres of crops, and resulted in an unprecedented multimillion-dollar buy-back program for wheat.
Fortunately, the response system worked, thanks to the efforts of EPA, other federal and state agencies and one pesticide registrant that agreed to buy back the illegally treated wheat crop. Together we were able to prevent the tainted crops from entering the food supply and no serious human health incidents resulted.
Off-label pesticide use is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. It can be especially risky to public health and the environment. Pesticides are registered for specific crops, with detailed label directions. It’s illegal and dangerous to use a pesticide inconsistent with these label directions. Pesticide label directions are based on substantial scientific testing and rigorous evaluation by EPA, the states, and scientific researchers, to ensure that products can be used without harm to workers, consumers and the environment. When a pesticide is used on a crop for which it is not approved or in a manner that is inconsistent with the label, it may pose real health risks to consumers.
Last year’s incidents caused serious economic and financial disruption for hundreds of growers, whose crops became suspect, embargoed, and quarantined. In addition, states have issued notices of warnings, suspended applicators’ certifications, and assessed fines and penalties totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.
If the contamination had continued unchecked, these incidents could have jeopardized our farmers’ ability to guarantee safe food to domestic and foreign purchasers. It could also have raised public concern and distrust about any use of agriculture chemicals and undermined the credibility of all pesticide and food safety regulatory programs in this country.
EPA’s Commitment to Growers
Misuse is not only risky; it’s preventable and unnecessary. In several off-label cases, the growers acknowledged the illegal use of chemicals on their crops due to severe pest outbreaks never before seen in their region. In such cases, growers should know that there are alternative resources available to assist them.
For example, EPA works closely with the user community to promote the development and use of reduced-risk pesticides. In fact, now more than half of the new approvals are for reduced-risk pesticides.
Another tool for growers is the emergency exemption. Section 18 of FIFRA authorizes EPA to allow the use of a pesticide for a limited time if EPA determines that emergency conditions exist. In the case of severe pest outbreak, growers can contact their state lead agency (usually the state department of agriculture) and evaluate the need for a Section 18 emergency exemption. EPA acts on these requests very quickly.
The Grower’s Role
Given the high stakes involved, growers must follow the pesticide product label to the letter, and only rely on guidance from crop consultants or suppliers that is consistent with label instructions. The overall intent of the label is to provide clear directions for effective product performance while minimizing risks to human health and the environment. It is important to remember that the label is the law.
The Nation’s Front Line in Food Security
Ultimately, growers must be wise and informed users of pesticide products and should commit themselves to the longstanding role as environmental stewards. Environmental stewardship is an integral part of pest control. Simply put, it’s safeguarding human health and the environment in order to sustain or improve the quality of life for ourselves and future generations.
Whether or not last year’s incidents were a coincidence, this is a problem that we can fix together. Through better coordination among federal and state agencies – as well as getting a strong message out to the user community – label compliance is serious business. As we pull together as a nation on so many of our security fronts, farmers are now more than ever important to ensure these valuable tools are used properly. Please read pesticide labels carefully and follow all directions.
Stephen L. Johnson is assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. To comment on this article, you may contact him at EPA or Forrest Laws, executive editor, Farm Press at firstname.lastname@example.org