Pesticide Industry Could Win Big in Latest Farm Bill Proposal | Civil Eats

Pesticide Industry Could Win Big in Latest Farm Bill Proposal

In this week’s Field Report, draft farm bill language could weaken protections from pesticide risk, a new report on reducing methane from cattle, and Maine organic farmers want to sue the EPA over PFAS.

“As a doctor, I am concerned about eroding protections for those most affected by dangerous pesticide exposures—the workers who apply them,” said Representative Yadira Caraveo (D-Colorado) during last Thursday’s session to discuss, amend, and vote on the House Agriculture Committee’s first draft of the 2024 Farm Bill.

Despite those objections, Caraveo was one of four Democrats on the committee who joined Republicans in moving the bill forward, complete with several controversial provisions that would make it harder for states to regulate pesticides and hamper individuals’ ability to seek compensation for harm caused by the chemicals.

Lawmakers have tried, unsuccessfully, to get similar language into past farm bills. Now,  ongoing lawsuits involving Roundup’s link to cancer and paraquat’s link to Parkinson’s disease and recent state efforts to restrict the use of certain pesticides have raised the stakes. As a result, insiders say the industry is fighting harder than ever before and the new provisions reflect that push.

“This is an effort to not only cut off the ability of farmers, farmworkers, and groundskeepers to hold the companies accountable, it’s an effort to prevent the public from ever learning about the dangers in the first place.”

Bayer, CropLife America (the industry’s trade association), and allied agricultural organizations including the American Farm Bureau are lobbying on Capitol Hill, and CropLife has been running frequent ad campaigns targeting D.C. policymakers. Bayer has also been pushing to get laws passed that would achieve some of the same goals in individual states.

A coalition of 360 agricultural industry groups have signed on to support their efforts, while public health and environmental groups and local government officials have joined together to oppose them.

Some of the language in the farm bill would position the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) pesticide labels the be-all-end-all when it comes to spelling out safety and environmental risks. But Daniel Hinkle, the senior state affairs counsel for the American Association for Justice, said labels are not immediately updated as new research on risk becomes available. And pesticides can be mislabeled, as in the case of dicamba, which was initially approved without protections to prevent drift and subsequently destroyed millions of acres of various crops, including soybeans and peaches.

Those are just a few of the reasons Hinkle believes preserving the ability for individuals to sue companies over health harms is critical.

“Litigation has already revealed that companies have spent decades covering up harm,” he said. “This is an effort to not only cut off the ability of farmers, farmworkers, and groundskeepers to hold the companies accountable, it’s an effort to prevent the public from ever learning about the dangers in the first place.”

Additional language in the bill could also overturn state and local laws that restrict the use of pesticides. For example, many counties and cities around the country have banned the spraying of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, in parks where children play. And just last week, California lawmakers voted to move a bill that would ban paraquat in fields and orchards starting in 2026 forward.

“Paraquat is a perfect example of a case where there are special circumstances that justify taking action that is stronger than the action taken by EPA,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group (EWG). A growing body of research shows paraquat exposure can significantly increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease, and the chemical is banned in dozens of countries.

In support of the ban proposed in California, EWG has been looking at paraquat use data in the state and found intensive spraying in just a few agricultural counties. Faber said the data also shows many pesticide applicators are using more paraquat than the label permits and are not following practices required for safety. “Farmers and farmworkers are being exposed to far more paraquat than EPA estimates,” he said.

In an email, a spokesperson for the House Agriculture Committee leadership argued neither provision would restrict states’ ability to regulate the sale or use of pesticides in a new way and that they would simply clarify and codify a section of federal pesticide law that is already on the books (and in some cases strengthen state regulatory power over local jurisdictions). The spokesperson said the bill “clarifies that only the EPA can make safety findings related to pesticides” and that it “would still allow for users of pesticides to litigate legitimate claims based on EPA safety findings.”

Yet another less-discussed provision buried in the farm bill text makes changes to how an “interagency working group” set up to improve regulations related to pesticides and endangered species would operate. The provision requires the group, when consulting with the private sector, to “take into consideration factors, such as actual and potential differences in interest between, and the views of, those stakeholders and organizations.”

While it’s not entirely clear how the language would be interpreted, Brett Hartl, the government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said it would likely “tip the scales significantly toward industry.” For example, during past meetings, representatives from pesticide companies, farm groups, and environmental groups offered public comments. As read, the language suggests agencies could make a determination that one group has a greater “interest” compared to another. According to the House Agriculture Committee spokesperson, the provision will ensure the EPA consults the working group “before developing any future strategies for improving the consultation process for pesticide registration and minimizing the impact on agriculture.”

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At this point, due to contentious provisions related to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and climate-focused conservation funding, the farm bill is unlikely to pass in the House and is essentially dead on arrival in the Senate. In fact, behind the scenes, most D.C. insiders doubt a farm bill will happen this year at all. If it does, it almost certainly won’t be this exact version.

But Hartl and others still believe stopping the progress of the pesticide provisions is crucial. “While it’s certainly true that Bayer is spending more than ever to try to escape accountability for the harms caused by their pesticides,” said Faber at EWG, “it is also true that ordinary people who are impacted by the harms of pesticides, whether it’s farmworkers, farmers, or school teachers, have never worked harder to defend these protections.”

Read More:
Inside Bayer’s State-by-State Efforts to Stop Pesticide Lawsuits
Paraquat, the Deadliest Chemical in U.S. Agriculture, Goes on Trial
The EPA Ignored the Endangered Species Act for 50 Years. Is Time Running Out?

Inflation Interrogation. During an at-times heated Senate subcommittee hearing last week, Senators battled with witnesses and each other over the underlying causes of high food prices over the last several years. Republican senators invited economic experts from conservative think-tanks The Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute, who bolstered their case that President Biden is to blame by pointing to increased federal spending as a driver of inflation.

On the other side of the aisle, the executive director of left-leaning economic policy organization Groundwork Collaborative, Farm Action’s chief strategy officer, and the owner of a small grocery store pointed to consolidation in the food industry and corporate profiteering as the cause. Consolidation across the food system, from farms to meatpackers to retailers, has been increasing, and the Biden administration has made it a priority to increase competition by both sending funds to small farms and businesses and cracking down on anticompetitive practices, for example, filing lawsuits against the biggest chicken companies for conspiring to fix prices. A March Federal Trade Commission report concluded some grocers used pandemic price spikes to charge even more and increase their profits.

Read More:
Biden Targets Consolidation in the Meat Industry (Again)
As Grocery Stores Get Bigger, Small Farms Get Squeezed Out

Feeding Away Greenhouse Gas Emissions. How much new feed additives could actually reduce methane emissions from belching cows remains unclear, according to a review of the research to date published by the Expert Panel on Livestock Methane. Red seaweed (asparagopsis) and a synthetic compound called 3-NOP (sold as Bovaer) added to cows’ diets have been pitched by many companies as having the potential to reduce the powerful planet-warming emissions by upwards of 90 percent. However, the scientists found that while lab studies found impressive reductions, studies that have measured emissions in animal trials have reported much more variable results, from 6–98 percent in seaweed trials and from 4–76 percent with 3-NOP.

Most notably, the longest and largest trial of red seaweed in cattle produced no reduction in methane intensity (the amount of the gas produced per unit of milk or meat) because the 28 percent reduction in burped methane was offset by the fact that the cattle ate less and gained less weight. The researchers also pointed to barriers in getting the additives to more animals, including the ability to grow enough seaweed without harming ecosystems and how often supplements need to be administered, which currently makes it nearly impossible for farmers to feed them to grazing cattle.

“All of these additives vary substantially in their methane mitigation potential, meaning that it is difficult to confidently say how much of current emissions they will be able to reduce,” the experts concluded. “More studies testing the interactions of different variables are needed to offer robust long-term estimates of their mitigation potential and of their costs, benefits and risks.”

Read More:
Methane from Agriculture Is a Big Problem. We Explain Why.
Can We Grow Enough Seaweed to Help Cows Fight Climate Change?

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Forever Contaminated. Organic farmers in Maine are threatening to sue the EPA for its failure to prevent PFAS from contaminating their fields. Over the last few years, farms have discovered the chemicals—which are linked to multiple health risks—in their soils as a result of past applications of sewage sludge. In a “Notice of Intent” to sue the agency, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardener’s Association (MOFGA) argues that the Clean Water Act requires the EPA to identify pollutants in biosolids every two years and, when risks are identified, to adopt regulations that prevent harm to human health or the environment.

“If the EPA had been regulating appropriately, many of our farmers wouldn’t be facing the harm they are today,” said Sarah Alexander, the executive director of MOFGA. “We demand that the EPA do the work required under the Clean Water Act and stop allowing these toxic chemicals to contaminate the U.S. food and water supply.” MOFGA will file suit if it believes EPA has still not met its obligations within 60 days.

The EPA has also been playing catch-up on regulating PFAS in drinking water over the past several years, and last week released new data showing PFAS are present in drinking water systems that serve 90 million people across the country. Earlier this year, the agency finalized the first limits on PFAS in drinking water.

Class-action lawsuits have already been filed against companies over PFAS contamination, and experts expect the legal battles to heat up in the coming years.

Read More:
PFAS Shut Maine Farms Down. Now, Some Are Rebounding.
New Evidence Shows Pesticides Contain PFAS, and the Scale of Contamination Is Unknown

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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