The Hunt for Kinder, Gentler Pesticides

The EPA, the chemical industry, and farmers rethink toxic technologies, opting instead for `softer' chemicals

`SOFTER chemicals'' is the way Eric Wintemute describes the next generation of pesticides that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to encourage.

Mr. Wintemute, president and CEO of Amvac Chemical Corporation in San Francisco, recently saw one of his ``hard'' toxic pesticides, Phosdrin, wind up being banned by the EPA as too harmful to agricultural workers.

``EPA's agenda is to make an easier track for softer chemicals,'' he says, ``to have chemicals that maybe aren't as efficacious, but safer from all aspects.''

His conclusion is not to be construed that he agrees with the EPA. Amvac spent close to $8 million researching and promoting Phosdrin as a pesticide. The chemical industry can spend as much as $40 million testing new pesticides.

But nothing is black and white anymore when the environmental movement, the EPA, chemical manufacturers, politicians, and the farming industry decide whether or not to use pesticides, or how much, on the fruits and vegetables that are grown and eaten in the United States.

Over all the discussions hangs the Delaney clause of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. It provides that no chemical may be approved for use in processed food if it is found to induce cancer in man or animals.

For years, the EPA interpreted the clause as subject to an exception for carcinogenic pesticides that pose only ``negligible risks'' to humans. Environmental groups challenged this in court, asking for a ``zero risk'' interpretation. Environmentalists won in 1993. Congress is now faced with rewriting the law.

In April of this year the Clinton administration opted for the ``negligible risk'' standard. They also proposed that the economic benefits derived from using pesticides no longer be weighed above those of consumers when regulators set tolerances for acceptable levels of pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables.

More pesticides are increasingly available today, as are alternatives to pesticide use. Public pressure and concern over carcinogens have demanded changes for health reasons, and less lethal pesticides are being used.

At the same time many farmers and growers across the US are using fewer pesticides even though an estimated 850 million pounds of chemicals are sprayed or dusted on crops annually.

Integrated pest management methods, where farmers decide what kind or if any pesticides need to be used based on the weather, pest numbers, and soil conditions, are now widely practiced. But to many farmers, pesticides don't deserve blanket condemnation, and some pesticide use is appropriate.

``Pesticides ought to be fully tested before they are used,'' says Jay Feldman, executive director of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides. ``One of the indicators of acceptable use would be whether there exists an alternative pest-management strategy to achieve the same end goal with less toxic impact.''

``Those of us who have one foot in the environment camp, and one foot in the pest-management camp,'' says Pat Weddle, a pest-management consultant in Placerville, Calif., ``sympathize with the public concerns over pesticides. But we see the answer as not in banning all pesticides. Rather it is more of a function of structuring the use of chemicals so problems are minimized, and we can move away from the older, more toxic technology.''

When the EPA removes a pesticide from the market it has to weigh its benefits versus the risks of leaving it in use. ``We have to look at the alternatives,'' says Al Heier, a spokesman for EPA in Washington, D.C., ``because taking a product off the market may put more people in jeopardy if the alternatives are no better.''

Arturo Rodriguez, the president of the United Farm Workers of America, says, ``Amvac and other pesticide manufacturers listen to one thing: profits. They do not care if these profits are made at the expense of farmworkers' lives. If Amvac was going to withdraw Phosdrin from the market because it was dangerous to farmworkers, they would have done it years ago.''

Many farmers who use some pesticides are as concerned about profits as they are about the wholesomeness of their products. ``I'm not going to hurt anyone with these apples,'' says Zeke Goodband, manager of Alyson's Apple Orchard in Walpole, N.H.

``But we can't raise apples here without using some pesticides if we are going to make a profit,'' he says. ``Each year the needs of the orchard differ depending on many factors, and I have to be able to respond to those needs.'' Mr. Goodband says some two dozen insects at various times can take up residence in his 90 acres of trees for better or worse. He monitors climate, insect presence, and soil conditions the year around, and sprays only as a last resort.

Stephen Wood, who owns and operates Poverty Lane Orchards in West Lebanon, N.H., says he estimates he has ``reduced pesticide use by 75 percent in the last 10 to 12 years,'' by understanding the dynamics of his orchards through integrated pest management.

``There is no inherent evil in pesticides,'' he says, ``and the health issues are associated with older compounds.'' Mr. Wood sees a range of pesticides as a range of tools available to growers, all of whom have specialized needs, and therefore could use fewer pesticides. ``But the regulatory process now undercuts all the options,'' he says, ``and with fewer pesticides to meet special needs we could end up using bulldozers to swat flies.''

To resolve the conflicts, Wood suggests that growers have more input in the regulatory process to find ways of reducing barriers to new compounds. ``There should also be a higher value placed on applied research,'' he says, ``and more emphasis on overall reduction in agricultures reliance on pesticides.''

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