How the Farm Bill Could Keep You from Banning Roundup at Your Kid’s Playground

A lesser-known provision in the House farm bill would prevent cities and counties from setting their own rules about pesticides on public land. And it would reverse current bans in 155 communities.



When Julie Taddeo moved to Takoma Park, Maryland, a progressive suburb outside of Washington D.C., and saw ubiquitous yellow flags marking the places where pesticide had recently been sprayed, she was surprised. “Everyone’s a treehugger here in, the Berkeley of the East,” she says. The warnings, which swarmed the lawns of homes and apartment buildings, playing fields, public parks, hospital grounds—and even school bus stops, seemed incongruous.

Concerned about her young daughter and the emerging science linking childhood pesticide exposure to pediatric cancer, asthma, and behavioral problems, Taddeo teamed up with a neighbor whose son suffered from asthma. The two began working with city council members to craft a law restricting the cosmetic use of pesticides on lawns on public and private property.

Modeled on an Ontario law, Takoma Park’s Safe Grow Act passed in 2013, and it spurred an outpouring of interest across Montgomery County. “Moms started reaching out to us with their stories,” recalls Taddeo. “One said, ‘My son has a brain tumor and his doctor is convinced that this particular tumor was caused by over exposure to certain pesticides.’”

A group of residents founded Safe Grow Montgomery, an umbrella organization that quickly mushroomed to more than 40 environmental and health organizations, and worked to pass the 2015 Healthy Lawns Act, a county-wide version of Takoma Park’s law. It was the first such law in the nation to restrict pesticides for non-essential use at the county level. (Non-essential means exemptions are allowed for control of invasive pests or human health risks.)

But victory was short-lived. “When one town does it, it’s not a big deal,” says Taddeo. “But when a county tries to do it and you’re a million people, this is when the big guns come out and try to squash it.”

A lawsuit, led by the Maryland Farm Bureau, a non-governmental organization that represents farm interests, now threatens the private sector portion of the law. The battle—and others like it around the nation—may be moot however, if a provision tucked deep in the 748-page House version of the 2018 Farm Bill becomes law.

Section 9101 of the House farm bill would allow the federal government to preempt local governments from setting their own standards for pesticides. And Montgomery County is one of 155 such localities across the nation that could see its pesticide laws stripped away, according to an interactive map published today by the nonprofit advocacy groups Beyond Pesticides and Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Overriding Communities

Sarasota, Florida; Portland, Maine; Wichita, Kansas; Douglas County, Minnesota; and many jurisdictions in California are among the localities that have moved to restrict pesticide use, largely in public places such as parks, playing fields, and school grounds. Fifty-eight of these communities have set specific restrictions for glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s controversial weed killer, Roundup, which has been linked to cancer and generated thousands of lawsuits.

Economics are clearly at play as pesticide use by localities is not insignificant. Carey Gillam, the author of Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, cites an internal memo from Monsanto that lays out why the company cannot afford to lose business from school districts. “It’s much smaller than agriculture but significant enough that they don’t want to lose it,” Gillam told Civil Eats.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) data shows that agriculture represented about two-thirds of the $13.8 billion in pesticide sales in the U.S., in 2012. Government, private, and community use accounted for about 10 percent. The remainder was for homes and gardens.

The farm bill conference committee begins meeting today to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill. The Senate bill does not contain the community preemption provision and groups like EWG and Beyond Pesticides are working to keep it out of the final bill.

“This provision has nothing to do with farming or food,” says Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at EWG. “It’s presumably an effort by the pesticide industry to punish those communities that dare to decide for themselves whether their kids should roll around in Roundup.”

And communities have cause for concern. A number of studies, including one long-term study from the University of California, has documented children’s particular vulnerabilities to pesticide exposure. And, in August, a former school district groundskeeper, Dewayne Johnson, was awarded $289 million for damages related to the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma he incurred after repeated exposure to Roundup, while 8,000 other cases await court dates.

The preemption provision in the farm bill would overturn decades of Supreme Court precedent, established by the 1991 case, Wisconsin Pub. Intervenor vs. Mortier, which allowed states to set laws that are stricter than federal law.

Drew Toher, community resource and policy director at Beyond Pesticides, says the vast majority of the local policies are not related to agriculture, but are focused on “protecting water quality, protecting kids’ health around playgrounds and public spaces, or protecting pollinators from toxic pesticides in the environment.”

Last week, more than 100 U.S. representatives also voiced their opposition to Section 9101, among other farm bill provisions, in a letter to Rep. Conaway, Chair of the House Agriculture Committee.

Who’s Behind the Provision?

Opponents say that the pesticide industry is pushing for the provision.

“Big agriculture interests have spent millions of dollars over the past few decades fighting against federal protections from toxic pesticides. Now these same interests are trying to use the farm bill to undermine safeguards put in place by state and local governments,” said Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), one of the signatories to the letter, in an email.

Faber notes that Monsanto (soon to be Bayer), Dow, and CropLife America, the pesticide industry trade association, in particular have all disclosed that they’ve lobbied on pesticide provisions in the farm bill in their lobbying records, though he can’t say whether they’ve had a role in crafting section 9101.

Pesticide companies want to “stymie a growing national grassroots movement that’s encouraging alternatives to their products because these policies don’t just take away a product, they encourage safer management practices and organic systems approaches to landscape management that effectively replace their toxic chemicals with practices that are more sustainable,” says Toher.

In Montgomery County, several lawn care companies, and Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE), a national trade association representing a range of companies that work with pesticides, are parties to the lawsuit against the Healthy Lawns Act, but, “the biggest opponent is the Farm Bureau,” says Taddeo. Their spokespeople call it a “slippery slope,” she says.

Colby Ferguson, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, says that while the bill doesn’t touch agriculture today, “that’s next week’s bill.” The Farm Bureau is also concerned, he said, that if the vast majority of the county can’t control pests, the burden would shift to farmers, and “they’d have to use [pesticides] a whole lot more. It would be like saying deer could roam freely anywhere in the county, until they got to a farm, and then they could be shot,” he told Civil Eats.

The Farm Bureau also supports the general view that pesticide regulation is best left to the federal government, says Ferguson.

Similarly, in a written statement provided to Civil Eats, the president and CEO of CropLife America Chris Novak said, “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) regulates and registers all pesticides after years of diligent and thorough testing… Localities lack the staff resources and scientific expertise to conduct these reviews. Consistent with the original intent of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, section 9101 of the House farm bill proposes to clarify the role of state and federal regulation.”

Meanwhile, lawsuits, like the one Montgomery county is facing, are happening everywhere, says Taddeo, who adds that, “if the preemption amendment gets passed, this makes their [pesticide industry] life much easier.”

Toher believes that groups like Safe Grow Montgomery don’t feel protected by the EPA, especially after its decision not to ban the powerful insecticide chlorpyrifos, and evidence that the agency’s then-chief Scott Pruitt met with Dow Chemical prior to the decision (The state of Hawaii has since moved forward with a ban of its own.)

In response, Toher says they’ve crafted rules that reflect their unique environments and values. “They’re looking at the data gaps in EPA’s pesticide registration process, at the emerging science, at the alternatives,” he says, “and they’re saying this in not what we want in our communities.”

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  1. jorge tamargo
    Wednesday, September 5th, 2018
    This farm bill is being created by Republicans the party that says keep goverment out of people business .But here we see the how curropted they are by lobbyist money . Corporate profit over Americans health at all cost is their unwritten law .
  2. Jack B.
    Wednesday, September 5th, 2018
    There's still time to contact or send email to your Congressional lawmakers to stop this injustice! They need to hear some noise!!!
    https://bit.ly/2NW3y3W
  3. Kim Lucci Elbualy
    Saturday, September 8th, 2018
    Hi

    I have experienced continual pesticide spraying in my local area. Specifically, several local public parks where I have walked quite frequently and who opened a dog park within its grounds. It has only been a few years. I recently was forced to take my dog to other areas since our temporary side of our 7ft fence was destroyed by the crazy weather….so I took him to our local park. Little did I know that spraying toxic weed killer was embraced and excepted. Then again, I am an advocate of feeding dogs’ raw diets, minimal shots if any, homeopathics and herbal medicine and organic garden practices.

    I was horrified that no one has tried to get this changed. In fact, the dog group who meets once a month, seem to think the weed killer is helping the bug issues and protecting the dogs from fleas, ticks and gnats. This could be done with organic recipes that could easily be sprayed with non-toxic substitutes that would be much safer! Hopefully the court case with Monsanto will put an end to this and keep pesticide companies levying power out of that bill and banned.

    It's a shame because our public areas should be safe and a place to play and relax. Our new dog park is a beautiful place and the people are great, but little did I know that the park was toxic. Several times we were locked out and only a couple days later…the gates were opened and the grass along the fence was green and within 3-5 days it all was dead everywhere! What ever happened to weed Wacker’s and new battery-operated inventions? What this is 2018 and still people are oblivious. I for one never dreamed or realized how frequently this is done and accepted. I know traditional vets still try to preach yearly shots and toxic pesticides; and I stand firm to help people know there is another way, but really…this is major. It’s public space! And dame it we have the right to be free of toxic shit!!

    If you imagine a dog park in the snow and see several days of continual paths that are made; imagine all the pesticide oils we carry about and carry right into our house, into our cars, etc.! WOW

    I would be interested in writing a letter to my state representative and have my local organic GMO-free farmers, parents, churches, schools, etc. to get on board with making changes in public and private areas; especially public. To help make a difference and get that bill to be thrown out or restructured and eliminating the power of those sneaky pesticide companies like Monsanto! Its time for the people to so NO.

    Any suggestions, forums or support that can help me go about that? I live in Central PA and need some relief from all these chemicals myself, my dog and my husband. I do not have any children, but if I did I would have spread the word! I never realized that public areas were so bombarded. We live in farm country where there are plenty of organic growers who have signs up all over about NO SPRAYING. How stupid and idiotic, to spray at nursery ground areas. Really this ludicrous, insane and idiotic…not to mention unbelievable!

    Please help me to help parents of both furry friends and precious children to get local ordinances to ban this.

    In the last five years I was exposed many times from uneducated neighbors within a high-density block who are still allowed to burn on Saturday morning in burn barrels! I must be sure to close all my windows, doors and turn on the air conditioners and get ready to call the police and bring my bucket of water to put out their smoldering fires! If one of them slips some plastic or construction waste in there, that’s it there done! We don’t mess around. We just keep calling the police over and over till they do something about it, because it comes in our house.

    Thank God, for the “Free Air Act” but somehow it missed toxic spraying in public/private places or second-hand smoke from neighbor’s who smoke outside your house. Don’t kill yourself, just your kids and neighbors!!! Everyone knows on our block, that if you burn toxic crap now we will turn them in. I became an advocate of keeping our neighborhood smoke free after several crazy neighbors had an eight-foot bonfire in their back yard that started out as a fire pit and some BBQ of food, yaw right! Not only did I file a complaint for the neighbor, I filled a complaint on the policeman who downplayed the smoke which came throughout our entire street that humid night and practically asphyxiated us all. And when my neighbor threatened me because of the policeman’s unprofessionalism, I filled another complaint for my neighbor threatening me and it all stopped.

    My husband and I became the bad guys on the block. But there are no more bon fires, thank God!!! Our rooflines of our homes are less than five feet apart! And many of the homes were burnt by fires; and they still allow this. It’s beyond stupid for township ordinances. There should be no burning what so ever, but that will take more time to get things changed. It is banned within our town, just not the township, and God forgive you live in the country where you expect clean air. It’s just as bad if not worse in rural areas People are oblivious, lazy and cheap about recycling for free all the toxic papers/plastics/glass, etc. and ignorant about their health.

    Possibly, I could make a difference and get parents of kids: churches, schools and farmers who care and work hard at keeping their two legged and four legged kids safe! By bringing awareness about how many public places using toxic chemical sprays and what it does to our immune system. Public and private places should be banned, and chemicals should be controlled more for safety. Everyone has the right to breathe fresh air, like I remember growing up as a kid!!

    Someone Deeply Upset and Concerned.
    Sincerely.

    Kim Lucci Elbualy

    PS: I was first introduced to the non-GMO and bee problems in US and their stupidity of not banning it like Europe in 90’s and early 2000’s. I met another metal artist who wanted to do a group of work about GMO produce in her work. I mentioned that my husband’s family had a produce company and where farmers; and to my surprise they embraced GMO produce back then. She was a foreign grad student, and I never looked at farming the same. I learned all about Monsanto. Watched documentary after documentary and articles about the crazy non-GMO issues. Bees who were mysteriously dying and farmers who lost everything because the neighboring farmers seed spread over to their crops! Shame on Monsanto for engineering the worst, most evil idea that has consumed our world with toxins and corrupted our land, our food and our health!!! We need to say NO MORE. Monsanto what were you thinking when you corrupted this country with your genetically modified seed and toxic poison? This company will never be able make up for its destruction.
  4. Suzanne Simpson
    Tuesday, September 11th, 2018
    We must not let this happen!
  5. Friday, September 14th, 2018
    I have tried to find the part of Section 9101 in the house version of the farm bill that is referred to in the article.

    Can someone please help me?

    Thank you