Pesticide Laws Could Get Rolled Back in the Farm Bill | Civil Eats

Congress Could Roll Back Pesticide Protections in the Farm Bill

In this week’s Field Report: The farm bill could be a vehicle to roll back pesticide safety, a flurry of food-and-climate reports, and more.

Aerial view of tractor spraying fertilizer on plants in agricultural field, California, USA.

More than 4,000 elementary schools are located within 200 feet of farm fields. And while many states have acted to restrict farms’ ability to spray pesticides near those schools, Congressional lawmakers are considering multiple proposals that could block them from doing so in the future.

Because children’s nervous, immune, and other bodily systems are still developing, acute and long-term pesticide exposures are more dangerous than they are in adults and can lead to learning disabilities, organ damage, and some cancers. One long-term study in California has found that children regularly exposed to agricultural chemicals had higher rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms and more difficulty learning.

In Hawaii, when pesticide drift incidents sent middle school students to the hospital, schools and parents responded, galvanizing a growing movement. In 2018, the state became the first to ban chlorpyrifos. In 2021, the EPA banned chlorpyrifos nationwide, but a federal appeals court last week overturned that ban, sending it back to the agency for further consideration.

“States know that pesticide spraying is a risk to students,” said Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), at a press conference announcing the results of new analysis on the topic from researchers at the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “Despite all of that . . . some members of Congress are proposing to preempt all of these laws, stripping states and localities from being able to do what’s necessary to protect their children.”

The proposal that would almost certainly curtail states’ ability to impose buffer zones and other restrictions around schools was first introduced in 2022 by former House Republican Randy Davis, who at the time said he was concerned that local communities were trying “to usurp some of the federal rules and regulations that we fought so hard to put in place.” The bill had strong support among groups that represent the agriculture, landscaping, and pesticide industries.

Now, according to Booker and policy staffers at EWG, lawmakers are planning to reintroduce the bill as part of the upcoming farm bill (or as part of a separate spending package). And it’s just one of three proposed bills that EWG and its allies are concerned would constrain state and local efforts to regulate pesticide use.

In June, in anticipation of farm bill negotiations, Representatives Dusty Johnson (R-South Dakota) and Jim Costa (D-California) introduced the Agricultural Labeling Uniformity Act, which would prevent states from putting their own warning labels on pesticides that differ from the ones the EPA has already approved.

For example, in California, Proposition 65 requires companies to provide warnings on products that are “known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm,” which is beyond what the EPA requires. And a federal appeals court just blocked the state from applying to labels to glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup.  “State labels . . . threaten public confidence in the agency’s authority and science-based regulation and undermine the critical role pesticides play in sustainably feeding a growing world,” Tom Haag, president of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), said in a press release. NCGA is one of 360 agriculture and pesticide trade and advocacy organizations that are backing the legislation.

Finally, while ranchers and meat industry groups have been battling over the Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression (EATS) Act, it could also impact state pesticide laws. The EATS Act was introduced as the next chapter in the long saga over California’s Proposition 12 animal welfare law.

When the Supreme Court declined to overturn Prop. 12, lawmakers created the EATS Act to prevent other states from regulating how animals are raised on farms. Now, they’re working to get it included in the farm bill. However, the bill could have much more far-reaching implications. An analysis out of Harvard Law School identified more than 1,000 state laws that could be overturned as a result of the broad language in the EATS Act and found that it “also could affect certain state and local regulations on pesticides and fertilizers.”

In September, a coalition of more than 180 public health, agriculture, and environmental organizations sent a letter to federal lawmakers urging them to oppose all three bills. “These efforts serve only to limit the ability of the EPA, states, and localities to protect their people and environment from the harms of pesticide use, while shielding companies from liability for their products’ harms,” they wrote.

EWG’s new analysis is in support of that larger push, and it included two maps—one of schools across the country that are situated near crop fields and another that shows the state and local pesticide laws that it sees as threatened.

“I will be one of these people taking every measure possible not to let this . . . happen,” Booker said, emphasizing that because federal rulemaking moves so slowly, other entities that can move faster should be able to step in on behalf of public health. “States and local communities being able to act is a vital tool in the toolbox in protecting Americans,” he said.

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Read More:
Hawaii Shows States’ Power to Regulate Pesticides
California Takes a Step Toward Restricting Bee-Killing Pesticides
When Seeds Become Toxic Waste

A Flurry of Food-and-Climate Reports. As the chance to spotlight food and agriculture at the upcoming global COP28 climate conference approaches, organizations are rushing to release reports to inform the conversation.

The Global Alliance for the Future of Food took a look at fossil fuel use and estimated that the food system accounts for about 15 percent of use around the world, with the most use occurring during processing and packaging and retail consumption and waste.

Meanwhile, the German Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, (Forschungsinstitut für biologischen Landbau, or FiBL), evaluated nitrogen use in agriculture and found that 85 to 95 percent of the nitrogen fertilizer used is wasted—at which point it enters the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas or pollutes nearby waterways. FiBL concluded that there is plenty of room to reduce the overuse of nitrogen while maintaining food security.

Ceres, a group that targets investors to move the needle on climate and other issues, also published a report that outlines how food companies can drive agricultural innovation. And As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy group, released a scorecard grading how much progress the 100 largest U.S. companies have made on climate goals. According to the scorecard, while the majority of companies are now disclosing greenhouse gas emissions and many are setting clear targets to reduce them, very few have demonstrated real progress on reductions. In the food and agriculture sector, As You Sow gave Bs to grain giant Bunge and PepsiCo; Walmart, Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s received Ds; and Costco got an F.

Read More:
Will a Food and Ag Focus at COP28 Distract from the Fossil Fuel Economy?
Walmart’s ‘Regenerative Foodscape’

Roundup on Trial. Courts ruled against pharmaceutical and agrochemical giant Bayer in two separate cases last week that involved men who claimed Roundup use caused their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Juries awarded $332 million in damages in California and $175 million in Pennsylvania. Bayer acquired Monsanto, the maker of the country’s most widely used weedkiller in 2018, at a time when thousands of lawsuits were being filed based on the company’s failure to warn of the cancer risk associated with glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.

On a related note, a documentary following the story of the first successful case against Monsanto will be released on streaming services on December 8.

Read More:
Inside Monsanto’s Day in Court: Scientists Weigh in on Cancer Risks
Community-Led Efforts to Ban Glyphosate in Public Spaces Pick Up Speed
The Man Who Fought Monsanto Will Leave a Lasting Legacy

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Biden Courts Farmers. President Biden traveled to a corn and hog farm in Minnesota on Halloween to announce more than $5 billion in new investments in agriculture and rural development. The money includes extra funding for oversubscribed conservation programs intended to help farmers implement environmentally-friendly practices. The administration injected extra funds earmarked for climate-friendly practices into those programs last year, but some lawmakers are attempting to use the farm bill to reallocate it to other farm programs that don’t focus on climate outcomes.

Read More:
Why Aren’t Conservation Programs Paying Farmers More to Improve Their Soil?
Climate Change Is Walloping U.S. Farms. Can This Farm Bill Create Solutions?

Goodbye to BVO. Less than a month after California banned five food additives from its food supply, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) proposed banning one of those—brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, often found in sports drinks and sodas—nationwide. FDA’s proposal is based on animal studies that show thyroid toxicity and other potential health risks, and it’s open for public comment through January 17, 2024.

Read More:
Michael Moss on How Big Food Gets Us Hooked

Rural Energy Boost. Climate Breakthrough awarded Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Alliance, $3 million to fund her efforts to increase clean energy development in rural America. Kleeb is known for her successful efforts to fight the Keystone XL pipeline by building alliances of farmers and ranchers, indigenous leaders, and climate activists.

Read More:
For Democrats to Win in 2020, Invest in Rural America, Says Jane Kleeb

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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