Pesticide Petition Hearings Find Little Common Ground
Farmers, foresters, citizens and activists converged on Bangor on March 30 and 31, 2006, to debate proposed rules to restrict pesticide use in Maine. Petitions submitted by the Maine Toxics Action Center (MTAC) and Environment Maine (EM), with over 900 signatures, advocated for rule changes that would ban all aerial spraying in Maine, phase out organophosphate pesticides (OPs), and repeal the $20 charge to be on the Board of Pesticide Control’s pesticide notification registry. In two days of hearings before the Maine Board of Pesticides Control (BPC), the only common ground was a concession by many farmers that OPs are dangerous.
The sides were sharply divided, however, about the advisability of instituting more protective regulations. Approximately 40 people attended each day of hearings; among those testifying during more than four hours of hearings, opponents outnumbered proponents by about two to one. The Environmental Health Strategy Center and MOFGA joined MTAC and EM in supporting the three petitions. They were joined by numerous citizens, some first-hand victims of pesticide drift. To view testimony submitted by Russell Libby and by Sharon Tisher on behalf of MOFGA, see www.mofga.org.
Recently appointed Commissioner of Agriculture Seth Bradstreet III opposed the petitions as did the Maine Farm Bureau, representatives of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Department of Forest Management, the Maine Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers Association, the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission, the Maine Potato Board, the Maine Forest Products Council, the Maine Agricultural Bargaining Council, and professional pesticide applicators and growers.
Aerial Spray Ban
Will Everitt, director of MTAC, argued that an aerial spray ban was called for because people have a right not to be victims of pesticide drift and chemical trespass: “even at low altitudes and winds of 4 miles per hour, [aerial spraying] causes drift into our waterways and into our communities, threatening the health of our environment and our families.” Since 2002, at least 11 toxic drift complaints have been reported to the BPC. Since two blueberry firms, Cherryfield Foods and Jasper Wyman and Son, agreed not to spray aerially (in response to a suit brought by MTAC under the Clean Water Act), no drift complaints have been associated with these companies. The only drift complaint last summer was against Allen’s Blueberry Freezer, Inc., which has refused to meet with MTAC to discuss its aerial spraying program.
Everitt cited toxicity data regarding pesticides commonly used and aerially sprayed by the blueberry industry, including carcinogenicity, endocrine disruption, and reproductive or developmental effects. Drift studies by the BPC found evidence that Downeast rivers and streams had been contaminated by both phosmet and chlorothalonil as a result of aerial spraying by Wyman and Cherryfield Foods. (These studies formed the basis for MTAC’s suit, and have since been suspended. At the April 15, 2005, meeting of the BPC, representatives from Wyman’s addressed the Board with several concerns about its drift monitoring program, stemming from the threatened lawsuits. They stated that the BPC staff would not be allowed onto their property without permission given on a case-by-case basis and that Wyman would no longer cooperate by keeping the BPC informed about spray schedules. At that meeting, the Board agreed to suspend drift monitoring in blueberry country temporarily and has not since resumed it.)
Connie and Edgar Van Dam of Columbia Falls put a human face on drift violation statistics. Connie testified that she had been “waiting since July 22, 2004, to testify to the Board. On that day, just one and a half hours before her young daughter got off her school bus, a field that the Van Dams had owned for 18 years was illegally sprayed by Imidan 2.5 (phosmet), an organophosphate insecticide. Just 200 feet from their home, the field was a favorite play space for their daughter. The pilot never reported that he had trespassed on their property. If their older daughter had not by chance been home and witnessed the spraying, nothing would have kept their younger daughter from a serious adverse chemical exposure by playing in her field. Aerial spraying is “a tragedy just waiting to happen... one incident is too many.”
Foresters and potato and blueberry growers joined to defend aerial spraying as the “safest and most cost effective” method of pesticide application. Ed Flanagan of blueberry processor Jasper Wyman and Son characterized the petitions as a “naive and hysterical approach to pesticides by environmental extremists.” Since Wyman voluntarily stopped aerial spraying last year, Flanagan argued that the small growers whom Wyman had serviced with aerial applications have suffered the most, because they couldn’t afford the equipment to make ground applications. He contended that “Maine’s small growers have lost between 40 and 50% of their crop because we stopped aerial spraying.” Flanagan added that Wyman had lost 5 to 7% of its crop to wheel tracks from its ground boom sprayer.
Midway through the hearings, Environment Maine’s Matt Davis took foresters aback by stating that he did not intend, by filing these petitions, to ban forest aerial spraying, since he agreed that ground application was unpractical in forests. Foresters continued to oppose the petitions, however, fearing they might be construed to apply to them. They argued that ground application was more hazardous to workers, because contact with the pesticide was more direct, took more time, required more refilling of tanks, and presented a higher risk of spills than aerial application.
Several opponents argued that the Board’s time would be better spent in reexamining its drift regulations and updating them with new technology and practices.
The MTAC and EM petitions seek a general ban on organophosphate (OP) pesticides, a category of insecticides classified by the EPA as the most toxic to humans and wildlife. In response to the petitions, BPC staff toxicologist LeBelle Hicks analyzed OP sales over the last 10 years. (Since the BPC’s statutory obligation to compile data on pesticides sales was rescinded, the Board has not produced annual reports to the public on pesticides sales for years since 1995.) The analysis was based on the BPC’s retail pesticides sales reports, filed by agricultural dealers in Maine. They are regarded by the BPC as fairly accurate, but do not reflect sales that may have been made over the Internet or by big box and other non-restricted use outlets.
The report indicated that overall OP use in Maine declined by more than two-thirds from 1995 to 2005: from 150,916 lbs. active ingredient to 41,735 lbs. active ingredient. Azinphos-methyl (Guthion, or Sniper), one of the most toxic OPs that was widely used in aerial spraying of blueberry fields and the subject of many complaints of illness in blueberry growing counties, has declined by more than three-quarters, from 16,831 lbs. in 1995 to 715 lbs. in 2005. The highest volume OP used in Maine today is phosmet (Imidan), which is generally classified as a less toxic OP. According to Hicks’ report, phosmet is also the only high volume pesticide (more than 10,000 lbs. used annually in Maine) with evidence of a link to cancer (although it has not yet been classified as a “possible” or “likely” carcinogen). Two of the highest volume OPs in Maine, methamidophos (12,540 lbs. in 2005) and disulfoton (1,426 lbs. in 2005), both used primarily on potatoes, are ranked uniformly in the highest EPA toxicity categories for oral, dermal, inhalation, skin and eye exposures, but are not classified as carcinogens.
Both Sharon Tisher on behalf of MOFGA and Mike Belliveau on behalf of the Environmental Health Strategy Center presented evidence that the EPA’s current rankings of toxicity for OPs were fundamentally flawed and underestimated the risks. Research published in February 2006 in the prestigious Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health, indicates that permanent toxic impacts on brain development in neonatal and young mammals can occur at levels significantly below levels that trigger cholinesterase inhibition, which has to date been the “gold standard” for measuring and ranking OP toxicity. (Cholinesterase inhibition means interfering with enzymes involved in neurotransmission; symptoms commonly experienced in OP exposure, such as blurred vision, headache, vomiting and dizziness, are indicative of this mechanism). One of the two OPs in which this impact on neural development was observed is chlorpyrifos, recently banned by EPA for most residential uses, but still the third highest volume OP in Maine, with 7,065 lbs. active ingredient sold in 2005 for a wide variety of different crops.
Tisher argued, “When new evidence indicates that the ‘gold standard’ on which federal standards...for these pesticides has been based is not adequate to protect against developmental neurotoxicity...in the absence of a compelling, science-based refutation of this new research, the Board should proceed with suspension of these products.” Belliveau added that this action is all the more imperative given “the current epidemic of learning and developmental disabilities that affect an estimated 17% of all American children.” Belliveau testified, moreover, that in setting tolerances and application standards for phosmet, Maine’s most widely used OP, the EPA not only failed to consider neurotoxicity but also used a safety factor of 3 rather than 10, as required by federal law to account for the special sensitivity of infants and children to pesticides.
Russell Libby on behalf of MOFGA argued that phasing out OPs would be good for promoting Maine products as wholesome and healthy. He commended the leadership of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission in promoting the healthfulness of blueberries, and their support of research to help farmers use fewer and less toxic pesticides. A recent USDA grant is enabling work on organic pest control possibilities. But more could be done, Libby argued, to produce healthy Maine blueberries in the least toxic, least ecologically-damaging way. “Eliminating the use of organophosphates on Maine’s wild blueberry crop would be another step in carving out an identity for Maine agriculture as THE place to go for healthy, nutritious foods.”
None of the dozens of growers and applicators who testified argued that OPs were not dangerous products. Many conceded that they would prefer not to use them. Many reported anecdotally that they had substantially reduced their usage in recent years. They contended, however, that the products were still essential in certain circumstances.
They argued that processors for both potatoes and blueberries had a zero tolerance for insects, and OPs were essential to meet that standard. Laughlin Titus of the Maine Small Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers Association testified that many uses of OPs had been replaced by
“neonicotinoids,” a much safer product line. However, recently certain pests, such as the Colorado potato beetle, have shown resistance to neonicotinoids. In the late season when resistant pests show up, “we’d like to use one shot of Guthion to take up the resistance… We were using OPs in the mid ‘90s with limited success at gallons per acre per year. We’ve brought that down to zero with success.” Now, because of the potato beetle problem, “We’re looking for the opportunity to use a pint per acre to control resistance.”
In response to repeated claims by blueberry growers that they needed OPs to meet processor standards, BPC member Lee Humphreys, a certified organic grower, cross examined two witnesses, brothers Walter and Ken Getchell of Marshfield. She inquired whether several organic blueberry growers were not members of the Downeast Blueberry Co-op. Walter admitted that they were, and that when they had leftover blueberries, they sometimes sold them to the Co-op. Humphreys asked, “Do the organic growers’ berries meet the processors’ standards?” Ken Getchell responded, “They have them tested, and they don’t have a problem with maggots.” Humphreys continued, “Then they’re able to grow berries without maggots?” and Getchell answered, “I don’t know if they completely avoid them.” “But the product is acceptable?” asked Humphreys, to which Getchell concluded, “Absolutely.”
In follow-up testimony, Dave Bell of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission attempted to refute the inference that organic methods provide an acceptable alternative for conventional production. Yields in organic production were substantially lower than conventional, Bell argued. “Organic yields are at 1500 to 2000 lbs. per acre; nonorganic IPM production can achieve yields of 8,000 to 12,000 lbs. per acre.” Bell argued that organic methods of pest control were more environmentally harmful and energy consumptive. In lieu of using OPs to control maggots, Bell stated that organic growers control pests by burning their fields, usually using oil. If current nonorganic acreage were converted to burning instead of OP use, Bell estimated that it would require 1.1 million gallons more oil to burn them. In order to put enough additional acreage into production to achieve the equivalent yields as current production, Bell estimated that it would take 3 million gallons of oil, “enough to heat 3,400 households.”
Russell Libby has submitted a response to Bell’s analysis. See the sidebar with this article.
The MTAC and EM proposal is to repeal the $20 annual registration fee for people to be on the BPC’s pesticide registry. The registry is largely intended to alert commercial lawn and structural applicators to people who desire advance notification of nonagricultural pesticide applications on neighboring properties. For people who live adjacent to agricultural fields, the BPC has an alternative notification procedure. Neighbors can request notification of applications within 500 feet of their home directly from their neighbors, and the BPC will intervene only if the parties cannot reach agreement or if the farmer fails to provide the promised notification. (See Ch. 28 of BPC regulations, at www.state.me.us/agriculture/pesticides/laws/regs.htm)
Although this proposal was not a major focus of testimony at the hearings, activists argued that the public had a right to know of pesticide applications just as they had a right to know about industrial emissions in their neighborhood, and that knowledge shouldn’t cost anything. John Eder, a member of the legislature and of the Committee on Agriculture, Natural Resources and Forestry, testified in support of repealing the fee, arguing that many of his constituents in the City of Portland were single parents without the resources to pay the fee. Board chair Carol Eckert, M.D., responded that the fee had been implemented largely in response to urging by the legislature that the Board should not provide an additional service without charging for it.
Eder responded that since the registry was implemented, the wide availability of the Internet should substantially reduce the costs of operating the registry. In arguing for the registry, Matt Davis of Environment Maine noted that only 20 people are currently on the registry. “I’m sure more than 20 people want to get on the registry. We had over 900 or 1000 signatures on these petitions. I’m sure those people would be happy to get on the registry, but they’re not ready to pay $20.” Scott Stevenson of the structural pest control company Modern Pest Services responded that it would be “bedlam” to manage such a large list. The 20 people currently on the registry have about 180 abutters, all names that must be checked by commercial applicators before they make an application.
The comment period for these proposed rules closed on April 14, and the Board has 120 days after that to decide how to respond to the petitions.
Sharon S. Tisher
Copyright © 2006
MOFGA Questions Conventional Blueberry Yields
On April 14, 2006, MOFGA’s executive director Russell Libby sent additional testimony to BPC staff and members concerning organic blueberry production in Maine, partly in response to questions raised by Board members at the public hearings in Bangor.
Opponents to the petition claimed that crop yields will drop drastically if aerial spraying or organophosphates are banned. One speaker said that yields without organophosphates might be as low as one-third of current average crop yields.
“There is a major distinction to be drawn between intensive management and the use of organophosphates,” wrote Libby. “Research evidence shows that intensive management of organic crops can produce yields close to those of non-organic crops. This has been shown at long-term trials at the Rodale Institute, at the University of Washington, and particularly in Europe.
“For blueberries, decisions to remove rocks from fields, to fill and level, and to irrigate can have a major impact on yields. These decisions are absolutely separate from organic and non-organic production practices. Even a decision to add fertility, which may increase yields, can be accomplished with either organic or non-organic inputs.
“USDA yield estimates for Maine for [2003, 2004 and 2005] are estimated at 3200#/acre, 1840#/acre, and 2300#/acre. (Ag Review, January 2006, total crop divided by 25,000 acres, approximately, harvested per year) These yields include a significant acreage of intensively managed fields, fields that several speakers suggested had yields of 8000#/acre. This means that the non-intensively managed fields had even lower average yields. The difference between a non-intensive conventional and a non-intensive organic field may be as little as a few hundred pounds per acre.”
Regarding whether a shift to organic pest control methods might substantially increase burning of fields and use of petroleum, Libby wrote: “At three different gatherings of organic blueberry growers hosted by MOFGA over the past decade, it’s been clear that: 1) most of our organic blueberry farmers are mowing fields where physically possible in preference to burning; 2) of the farmers who are burning, most are using straw or hay to minimize fuel use; 3) burning is done at longer intervals than is traditional (that is, some of our farmers are harvesting their fields two years, then mowing or burning in the third year) to generate maximum income per acre and minimize production risks. From the testimony of the blueberry farmers present at the hearing, many say that they can’t drive tractors over some of their fields and therefore need aerial spraying; these same farmers would also be burning now. Again, the differences that were being discussed have as much to do with the lay of the land and the ability to move machinery through it as it does with production practices. Most organic farmers are very concerned about doing heavy burns because of a desire to maintain and build the organic matter pad that supports the crop, a concern they share with most conventional farmers. For that reason they also use flail mowing and hay burns, even when they may sacrifice some yield due to disease or insect pressure. Since the majority of acres in production are managed conventionally, it is true also that most of the burning happens on conventional fields, simply by default. (Last year MOFGA certified 26 farmers with blueberry land, with a total of about 665 acres, representing just over 1% of the total blueberry acreage.)”
Libby added that no evidence was presented, nor has he seen any, that shows that organic fields have higher levels of insects or diseases, pre-treatment, than conventional fields.
“One of the issues not mentioned is the difference in income per acre,” he continued. “A well-managed organic field, with yields of about 1500#/acre, might generate as much as $2200 when direct-marketed, at $1.50 per pound. The summer fresh market generates even higher prices. It’s actually net income per acre that makes the difference at the end of the day, not total yield. Someone growing for the conventional wholesale market, with the average yields cited earlier, would have grossed $820, $1056, and $1520 per acre, respectively, over the past three years. The conventional producer generally has higher production costs as well. This isn’t to say that the choice is an easy one. It’s just that the issues of production and yield and markets are inextricably linked together when we consider net profits for the individual farmer.
“Setting aside the issue of yields per acre, and the more important income per acre measure, at the crux of the matter is the issue of whether the industry can function without organophosphates. Recent research from the University of Maine, as part of a USDA-funded Organic Transitions study, indicates several possible alternatives for control of blueberry maggot… In addition, there is a spinosid product (not approved for organic use) that is showing good results in University trials. Within a short time there may be several new controls available, both organic and not.
“Many growers mentioned the dramatic decrease in OP [organophosphate] use on their farms, largely due to better scouting and IPM programs. We applaud their progress, and the industry’s continued commitment to research to use fewer and less toxic materials. However, the industry is using broad-spectrum organophosphates as the solution, and that solution is not appropriate for continued use on our foods. Similarly, applying pesticides by air to fields in close proximity to residents or sensitive waterways is not appropriate.”