Advocates for pesticide reform are demanding that the state beef up efforts to reduce California’s dependence on toxic chemicals in agriculture after newly released data showed pesticide use at near-record highs.
The report released this week by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation shows state farmers used 192 million pounds of pesticide chemicals for crop production in 2016. That’s down slightly from the previous year, but still the second-highest application of pesticides since 1998.
Some of the most frequently used pesticides contain chemicals that are known carcinogens, reproductive toxins, and air and groundwater contaminants. Advocates say use of these chemicals puts farmworkers and residents in agricultural communities at risk, along with consumers who may be exposed to pesticide residues on their produce.
“We know the hazards that many of the pesticides that are used in California have, especially for communities living on the front lines of pesticide exposure,” said Sarah Aird, co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform, a coalition of 185 groups working to strengthen pesticide policies in California.
“We think the state of California should really be taking an ambitious approach in this area.”
In Ventura County, the most-applied pesticides included chloropicrin, which is classified as a lung-damaging agent by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 1,3-dichloropropene, which the CDC says can cause skin burns and irritation to the eyes, skin and respiratory system, and is a possible occupational carcinogen. These pesticides are used most frequently for strawberry production, a big industry in the county.
Overall, Ventura County ranked 10th highest in the state for pounds of pesticides used. The San Joaquin Valley region, including Fresno, Kern, Tulare and San Joaquin counties, used the highest amount of pesticides in 2016.
Adam Vega, a pesticide reform advocate and community organizer in Ventura County, said the slight dip in pesticide use over 2015 was encouraging but not enough. He said he frequently hears fieldworkers and people living near agricultural areas in the county complain about health problems they believe are caused or exacerbated by frequent exposure to pesticides. Residents complain about skin irritation and asthma, as well as cognitive problems in children, he said.
“We’ve got to do better for the people working in the fields as well as for the consumers,” Vega said. “I think we need to move toward more regenerative forms of agriculture so we can truly start curbing use.”
But Charlotte Fadipe, assistant director and spokesperson for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, called the activists’ interpretation of the 2016 data inaccurate. She pointed to the decrease in pesticide usage over 2015 levels and said it’s normal for the amount of pesticide application to fluctuate year by year depending on varying weather conditions, pest outbreaks and the amount of food produced.
Instead of focusing on the overall numbers, Fadipe said people should pay attention to the types of pesticides used by farmers. She noted that the report shows a decrease in the overall amount of toxic chemicals applied in 2016, and a rise in the use of more non-toxic pesticides.
“We’re very encouraged by the fact that the most hazardous types of pesticides used have decreased,” Fadipe said. “Those are pesticides that are more likely to affect our air, our groundwater, reproductive systems, carcinogens, all of those kinds we’re really concerned about.”