Wednesday, May 28, 2008

USDA Cuts Pesticide-Use Data Reports


Photo credits: treehunger

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Citing budget pressures, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week that it had published the last of its annual Agricultural Chemical Usage reports, which track the amount of pesticides applied farmlands nationwide.

The report has been published annually since 1990, although it has faced significant cutbacks in recent years: First the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) began reporting chemical applications every other year for selected crops, and then last year reported statistics only for cotton, apples and organic apples. Finally, as of last week, the reporting has been put on hold until at least 2010, owing to the $8 million drain on NASS's $160 million budget from the reporting process.

The move has drawn criticism from across the spectrum: environmental- and social-justice groups have decried the significant health and ecosystem threats from chemical applications, and a spokesman for the American Farm Bureau told the Associated Press that ending the reports "will mean farmers will be subjected to conjecture and allegations about their use of chemicals and fertilizer."

In our 2008 State of Green Business report, issued earlier this year, GreenBiz editors found that pesticide use on the four biggest crops in the U.S. was holding steady from year to year, with small variations from year to year but no significant improvement overall.

Over at Grist's blog, Tom Philpott uses as an example of the importance of the reports data on applications of methyl bromide in strawberry fields: Despite the chemical being banned by international treaties, Philpott found by searching the NASS database that methyl bromide use continued to grow from 2000 to 2006 as a result of the U.S. government seeking exemptions from the global ban.

In advance of the announcement, a coalition of nearly 50 farm and environmental groups sent an open letter [PDF] to USDA chief Ed Schafer urging him to reinstate the reporting. The letter cites the high cost of alternative data-gathering methods: reports from for-profit enterprises like Doane or Crop Data Management Systems can cost $500,000 or more, whereas the federal government's data is both of higher quality and free to everyone.

Don Lipton, the American Farm Bureau spokesman, told the AP: "Given the historic concern about chemical use by consumers, regulators, activist groups and farmers, it's probably not an area where lack of data is a good idea."

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