In the U.S. there are somewhere around 3.4 million people who work in agriculture. Some of them are children. They are either the sons or daughters of farmers or town kids hired as temporary labor.
Each year, between 10,000 and 20,000 of these adult and child workers have to go to the doctor for treatment of pesticide poisoning. While that’s a small percentage, the effects of pesticide exposure can have immediate or long-term consequences. So, perhaps it’s no wonder that there are nine separate federal laws that regulate some aspect of pesticide manufacture, transportation and use.
- FIFRA, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, was originally enacted to protect farmers from poor quality pesticides. In 1972, the law was changed to protect public health and the environment. All pesticides had to be registered and evaluated by the new EPA, and they were approved only if they would not cause “unreasonable adverse effects on the environment.” Pesticides were classified for “general use” or “restricted use” and chemicals classified as restricted use could only be applied by trained and certified applicators. That meant that pesticide dealers and farmers began taking detailed classroom instruction before they could handle pesticides.
- EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, was established by Congress in 1970 and, among other things, regulates the use of all pesticides under the authority of FIFRA. This task is daunting because there are 21,000 pesticides registered today with 875 active ingredients. In addition, Congress mandated in 1975 that the EPA notify the Secretary of Agriculture (or USDA) of any changes in pesticide regulations and required them to consider the economic impact on farming. Through the 70s and the mid-80s, the EPA was overwhelmed with the review of older chemicals. The process was taking decades. So Congress set up a nine-year deadline on EPA review and imposed substantial fees on companies seeking registration to pay for the process. The effect of the fee was that many chemicals with limited market potential were removed from the review process.
- The EPA also set worker protection standards governing how farm hands work with pesticides. Before these regulations, crop dusters, for instance, would routinely hire young people or migrants to hold a flag at the end of the rows as they dusted a field. The new regulations required protective equipment for anyone entering a recently treated area, along with safety training, posters and information, decontamination sites and emergency assistance when needed. In the specific example of a crop duster, new GPS systems have eliminated the need for a human row marker.
- FDA, the Food and Drugs Act or Pure Food Law, regulates the amount of pesticide that can be in the food supply. The EPA sets the tolerance levels, and those tolerances are enforced by the FDA, for most food, and the USDA, for meat and poultry products. For the farmer, these regulations mean that they have to follow food safety guidelines and best practices while they grow and market their products.
- OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, mandates that employers, including farmers and ranchers, protect their workers from hazards in the work place. For pesticides that means getting trained and certified, providing protective clothing, following label warnings, posting warning signs for treated areas, reporting any medical emergencies and keeping kids under 16 away from equipment. OSHA also regulates pesticide manufacturing facilities.
- The Endangered Species Act makes it unlawful to harm any plant or animal listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as endangered or threatened. For farmers using pesticides, that means they have to check with county bulletins to find out specific locations they need to stay away from.
- The Clean Water Act protects streams, rivers and underground aquifers from both point and non-point sources of pollution. A pesticide manufacturing plant is a potential “point-source” of pollution because it’s one limited geographic point. But when a farmer applies that pesticide over a wide area, that become a potential “non-point source” of pollution. The EPA has required states to submit management plans to reduce the non-point sources of pollution within each state.
- The Safe Drinking Water Act also gives the EPA authority for enforcing maximum contaminant levels for pesticides in drinking water. Periodically, high levels of chemicals have been found in drinking water, particularly with atrazine in the Midwest. When that happens, towns can be forced to provide bottled water and clean up the source of the pollution.
- The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) governs the disposal of solid waste, like the bags or plastic bottles that pesticides come in. Farmers disposing of pesticide containers are considered “small quantity” users and are exempt from RCRA regulations as long as they wash the containers three times and dispose of them following label directions.
- The DOT, or Department of Transportation, controls all modes of transportation of hazardous materials, including pesticides. These regulations obviously affect the retailers (like coops or feed stores) but they also affect farmers taking the products home.
- The 1990 Farm Bill, required all certified applicators of “restricted use” pesticides (including individual farmers) to keep records just like commercial applicators for at least two years. The USDA set up cooperative programs with the states to collect these records.
One thing that all of these regulations mean is that companies are not going to bring a new pesticide to market unless it is significantly better than what was being used before. Under FIFRA, it can take a company six to nine years and $50 million or more to complete all the testing that’s required and get approval.
For the farmer, the regulations mean a lot of work for training and documentation.
Elaine Stuhr (right) believes that farmers are the original environmentalists. “I got introduced to that [the environmental movement] in the 70s and 80s,” Elaine remembers. “But they really don’t have an idea of what goes on in agriculture. It kind of started out with the livestock, people being against livestock production and eating meat because they didn’t feel that we were treating our animals properly. We always say, ‘We live there. We use the food. We use the water. So, we are probably the best environmentalists because we really care about what’s going to happen to the future of our land and our environment.'”
Todd Sneller (left) says that environmental laws are the political reality for the future. “The fact is that it [government] is shaping agriculture in fundamental ways,” Todd says. “The future has been charted by the environmental community and by the policy makers. It’s an evolution that agriculture is coming to grips with, adapting to. And we’ll accommodate, as time goes on.”