I was invited to the celebration and I wanted to participate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had just announced that “it will stop the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos on all food to better protect human health…” This is what PAN and many partnering organizations have been working on for years. Getting here has not been easy, and people are understandably ready to give a sigh of relief and enjoy the feeling of a job well done.
Unfortunately, despite this very real success, I could not get into the spirit of the celebration — and I still can’t. The chlorpyrifos ban we’ve been celebrating isn’t quite finished. And, it is the people who live in the rural areas, where soybeans and corn fill most agricultural fields, who will continue dealing with this insecticide unless EPA finishes the job.
Catching the Drift
Back in 2015, our farm participated in an Iowa drift-catching campaign with PAN. My partner, Tammy, and I were well aware that our work on our small-scale, diversified farm likely exposed us to a number of pesticides, none of which we would have applied ourselves. Rather than rely on an educated guess without any specific data to back it up, we took the leap and faithfully took samples and recorded weather and field conditions. We did this work with mixed feelings. A positive test result was not going to be, from our perspective, at all positive.
Once the samples were analyzed, we learned that there were two specific spray events that resulted in measurable drift amounts of chlorpyrifos in the air at our farm. In one of those instances, the application occurred one mile away. The winds reached no more than five miles per hour, moving in our direction from the application site. In other words, this application was well within the parameters set by the product label and the field wasn’t right next door.
And we were still breathing it in.
What the EPA ruling does do
There have been some questions regarding the scope of EPA’s decision to limit the use of chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate insecticide, acaricide and miticide that has long been known to be harmful to the health and development of children. The August 18 decision will remove tolerance levels of chlorpyrifos pesticide residues in food as of February 28, 2022. This includes residues of the pesticide in animal feed or in meat, milk or other animal products that might come as a result of consuming contaminated feed. In short, once tolerances are revoked, the pesticide cannot be used on food crops — which is why many have interpreted the decision as a “ban.”
This is truly good news. There is no such thing as a safe amount of chlorpyrifos on our foods. EPA finally stepped up and recognized what the scientific research has been showing for years — we should not be ingesting any amount of this product as we sit down to eat. The decision also protects families living near and individuals working in fruit and vegetable fields where chlorpyrifos will no longer be applied.
It is now clear that the use of this insecticide on orchard and vineyard crops, which are among the top four crop types that have seen the use of chlorpyrifos in recent years, will not be tolerated. On the other hand, future use of this pesticide on corn and soybeans is not as clearly defined.
And what it doesn’t
EPA hasn’t yet proposed the cancellation of chlorpyrifos registration, which is different from crop tolerance levels. At present, non-food uses of chlorpyrifos for crops such as ethanol corn, seed and sod crops, flowers, or ornamental plants, will continue. This means a small-scale farmer in Iowa who spends much of his time outdoors may still be able to get measurable readings of chlorpyrifos with a Drift Catcher next year and for years to come — revealing my own personal hesitation when it comes to celebrating this recent decision.
It is true that field corn and soybeans are both used for animal feed and for the creation of various food products. If growers want to sell their harvest for those uses, they will need to avoid this insecticide. On the other hand, corn is also used for ethanol production and various manufactured goods. It is estimated that 57% of Iowa’s field corn is used for ethanol production alone. And, let us not forget that the corn belt (Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska) is home to significant seed corn production.
Soybeans are a slightly different case, with most soy products going to animal feed or food products. There are some non-food uses for soybean oil, and, of course, there is always seed production. However, Dow-Corteva has identified soybeans as one of the uses it wants to retain and will continue to exert pressure for exemptions where it can.
And, finally, let’s not forget that food tolerance levels apply to foods to be consumed in the United States. That could mean growers may decide to use the product for crops to be exported to countries that will accept chlorpyrifos residues on these products. For context, consider that the United States exports about 2 billion bushels each of field corn and soybeans every year.
We’re not done yet
While I celebrate the move to no longer allow any level of this dangerous pesticide on our foods in this country, I believe we can do better than that. I would like to be able to say that we also value the lives of the people who live near and work in fields used for all types of agricultural production.
EPA says they “will proceed with registration review for the remaining non-food uses of chlorpyrifos. . . which may consider additional measures to reduce human health and ecological risks.” They say their review is underway, and that they’ll release a decision by next October.
We’re not at the finish line yet, but we’re close, and we want you to help us to finish the job! This is why PAN and our partners are gearing up to press EPA to cancel all remaining uses of chlorpyrifos.
Count me in as one rural American who is hoping our health, and the health of our children, is worth protecting too.