In August, a three-judge panel ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos because of an activist petition filed back in 2007. The Trump EPA denied this petition in March 2017 based on solid scientific grounds, but the court has now ordered the agency to ban the chemical within 60 days. The Trump administration has appealed that decision. The appeal calls for a larger panel to review the issue with the hope of getting a reasonable decision.
As part of that appeal, farm groups have filed an amicus brief detailing how the ban would undermine food production. Apparently, the greens don’t want the farmer’s side of the story told because it shows that bans come with serious tradeoffs. In this case, a potential court-ordered ban on chlorpyrifos would impose verifiable and real costs to farmers and consumers in exchange for little to no health benefits.
Claims about chlorpyrifos risks are based on junk science and outlandish hype. You can learn more about that from a prior post and paper on the topic. Here we take a look at what farmers say about the ban.
Filed on behalf of 28 farm-related organizations, the amicus brief combines comments and data provided by a wide range of agricultural producers. See the brief for the footnotes to the original quotes included in excerpts provided in this post.
Farmers use chlorpyrifos and other pesticides because they provide critically important crop protection benefits. When these products are banned the adverse impacts can be substantial. In the amicus brief, they explain:
[T]he panel’s Order directing EPA to revoke all tolerances and cancel all registrations of products containing chlorpyrifos threatens to wreak havoc on Agricultural Amici in the coming growing seasons. As the Secretary of Agriculture succinctly stated, “[f]or some crops and target pests, chlorpyrifos is the only line of defense, with no viable alternatives,” and the “immediate, and total loss of this crop protection tool endangers agricultural industries and is expected to have wide economic impacts.”
The brief notes that a large number of crops would be “especially vulnerable” to crop damage should the court ban chlorpyrifos. These include: alfalfa, almonds, apples, citrus, cotton, cranberries, peaches, peanuts, peas, pineapples, sorghum, soybeans, strawberries, sugar beets and tree nuts.
Farmers in the state of Michigan would be particularly hard hit, as the brief notes:
“As the state with the second-largest variety of crops, Michigan is home to growers who are particularly endangered by the panel’s decision. In that state, “[c]hlorpyrifos is the only seed treatment control option for seed corn maggot, a major pest of field corn, seed corn, sweet corn, edible beans and peas. At several crop stages chlorpyrifos is the only control option of cabbage maggot in garden greens, radish, cauliflower, and turnips.” Overall, growers in Michigan estimate a staggering crop loss percentage of 50-95% if chlorpyrifos tolerances are revoked. Indeed, some growers expressed concern that “they would have no choice but to forego production” of a vegetable for which chlorpyrifos tolerances were revoked.
And ironically, this pesticide ban could actually increase pesticide use. The brief notes:
“Beyond these crop-specific impacts, the panel’s decision could push growers to use more expensive—and less effective—pesticides to try to control insect pests. This would have the perverse results of: (1) costing growers who have done nothing more than use products lawfully on the market; and (2) increasing the use of chemicals introduced into the environment.”
In addition, with one less product on the market, farmers will face greater challenges fighting insect resistance to crop protection products. “In Minnesota,” the brief points out, “‘a limited number of options’ exist to control soybean aphids and spider mites. Removal of chlorpyrifos ‘would result in a rapid buildup of insecticide resistance’ to pyrethroids and neonicotinoids.”
Chlorpyrifos is also critical tool in the battle against new invasive pests that can threaten entire crops. For example, it’s been essential in combating the Asian citrus psyllid in California where invasive species are a substantial problem. According to the brief, “nearly one new invasive pest emerged each year over the past decade,” making the chlorpyrifos “essential given its wide applicability and the relatively narrow applications of newer products.” I discuss this in greater detail in my paper on the topic.
Finally, the brief highlights the aggregated economic impact that such a ban would impose:
Revocation of tolerances and cancellation of registrations will harm not only growers, but also the broader economy. “A sampling of crops for which chlorpyrifos use is critical” represents tens of billions of dollars of production value in the United States alone: cotton ($5.1 billion); alfalfa ($10.8 billion); non-citrus fruit ($16.3 billion); citrus fruit ($3.4 billion); tree nuts ($10 billion); and vegetables ($13.1 billion). It is enormously important to our economy for growers to effectively protect these crops from destruction due to insect pests. Given its relatively low cost, chlorpyrifos is a necessary tool to allow U.S. vegetable growers to stay competitive with foreign producers that have already taken away a significant portion of market share. According to these growers, “[t]he loss of chlorpyrifos in the United States may accelerate this process.”
Clearly, there will be real economic impacts of a chlorpyrifos ban, and you can be sure that costs will be passed along to consumers in the form of higher food prices. But alleged benefits of a ban are unlikely to materialize because there’s little evidence that this chemical poses any real risks.
The greens would like to cover this up, and they would like us all to believe that all food can be grown organically—i.e., without the use of certain synthetic pesticides. But so called “organic farming” also uses pesticides that are not necessarily safer than synthetic pesticides used for conventional farming. And these organic-approved pesticides are less effective, which means organic farming produces less food per acre and requires more intensive application of pesticides. So in addition to making it harder to feed the world, organic farming is not necessarily better for the environment, since it can require greater chemical use and more land use.
The activists’ attempt to silence farmers shows they realize that the facts undermine their case against this and other pesticides. The risks of chlorpyrifos are insignificant, while its benefits to farmers and consumers are substantial.