Important changes may be in store for a key aspect of US agriculture. This is the use of pesticides, the toxic chemicals that help boost agricultural production but which critics say are dangerous and ought to be more strictly controlled.
The US Environmental Protection Agency is about to receive the final report on pesticides from the Agency's scientific advisory board. Early indications from this group of experts, as well as a congressional subcommittee, portend significant shifts in the way the EPA monitors and controls pesticides.
And in California, two recently filed lawsuits -- one brought by environmentalist, health groups, and farm workers, the other by the nation's largest chemical companies -- could well hasten this process.
In use today are some 35,000 pesticide products made from about 1,400 basic ingredients. Pesticide use in the United States has grown more than 40 percent in the past decade, to about 1 billion pounds a year; it is a $2 billion-a-year industry.
Since the responsibility for agricultural chemicals was shifted from the US Department of Agriculture to the EPA in 1970, the agency has been trying to catch up on its testing and evaluation of pesticides. EPA officials, who continue to rely on industry information in some areas, say the process may take another 10 to 15 years to complete.
In its draft report last year, the EPA's scientific advisory board found "gross inadequacies" in some of this industry data. Some laboratories on which the EPA relies, the panel reported, "have performed experiments in scientifically shoddy manners, have falsified data, or have suppressed unfavorable results."
Of particular concern are the "tolerance levels" set by the EPA -- the amount of a chemical which may safely be left on food products and subsequently ingested.
After conducting its own hearings, the House of Representatives oversight and investigations subcommittee 14 months ago concluded that "the EPA's tolerance-setting program is abysmal and needs a complete overhaul." The General Accounting Office also has been critical of the EPA's tolerance-setting procedure.
All of this is expected to come to a head within the next few weeks when the EPA's scientific advisory board issues its full report on pesticides.
Meanwhile, a legal battle over pesticide use and regulation is mounting in California, the state where one-third of the nation's vegetables and more than 40 percent of its fruits and nuts are grown. The state accounts for as much as 30 percent of the nation's pesticide use.
A coalition of pesticide opponents charge the California Department of Food and Agriculture with inadequately assuring that "residue tolerances" of pesticides on food are "not deleterious to the health of man and animals," as state law requires.
The state relies on EPA tolerance levels, but these assume that Americans annually consume only 7.5 ounces of such produce items as almonds, mushrooms, blueberries, and summer squash. It is charged that the state (and hence, the EPA) fails to consider that many people eat much more of these items, that children are smaller and therefore more susceptible to the effects of pesticides , and that other sources of pesticide residue (including drinking water) are not included in setting overall tolerances.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture recently adopted more stringent pesticide controls, but the state Legislature so far has failed to provide funding necessary to carry out the new regulations.
In a federal court suit, chemical manufacturers are trying to block the new state pesticide controls. Current EPA regulations (including tolerance levels) ensure adequate safety, pesticide makers insist. Besides, they say, current federal law requires "uniformity" among all states where pesticides are used.
The outcome of these lawsuits, as well as the report by the EPA's scientific advisers, could go a long way toward settling these important issues.