Alar Scare Changed Farm Attitudes

Chemical companies, farmers are taking a more cautious approach to using crop pesticides. CHEMICAL AGRICULTURE

RALPH and John Schramm trudge through the wet grass of their apple and peach orchard. On either side, their fruit trees have bravely thrust out new buds in the chill wind. But the talk today is not about the crop prospects or the nasty spring weather. It is about chemical pesticides.

Farmers like the Schramms have become sensitized as never before to public fears about chemical agriculture in the United States. And that is causing a sea change in farm attitudes - especially in the apple industry, which was hit hard by a public uproar last year over a chemical called Alar.

``The Alar experience certainly made a lot of people sensitive to the issue,'' says Derl I. Derr, president of the International Apple Institute. ``It applies to all of agriculture.''

While several environmentalists are skeptical that this new attitude represents a real change of heart, it has so far improved public policymaking over controversial pesticides. While most Americans probably recall last year's Alar scare, there has been no similar panic over ethylenebisdithiocarbarnate, or EBDC.

This is the beginning of the spraying season for the Schramm Farms and Orchards, located in Harrison City, Pa. Of the dozen or so sprayings Ralph makes every season on his family's 25-acre orchard, he would normally use EBDC twice. The yellowish sand-like pesticide, when mixed with water, kills a broad range of orchard funguses.

This year, though, he will have to do without it. In September, the four companies that manufacture EBDCs temporarily suspended the use of the pesticide for apples and 41 of the 54 other crops for which it is registered. The reason: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is reviewing the chemical's safety.

``It was a decision we think was more pragmatic,'' says Janet Ollinger, product-registration manager for EBDCs at Rohm and Haas Company, the world's leading producer of the pesticide. The company feared that by doing nothing, EPA would cancel the chemical completely. In suspending the pesticide's uses, the company's EBDC sales in the US have fallen one-third from about $15 million to $10 million. But ``if we had not acted, would we have had another Alar situation? Personally, I think we could have.''

The companies and growers are also conducting several in-depth surveys to give government scientists hard data on how farmers use the chemical, how much of the residue actually remains after harvest, and how much of it can be found once the fruits and vegetables reach the consumer. Preliminary data show that of some 1,900 food items analyzed so far, 84 percent did not show detectable amounts of EBDCs, and 87 percent did not have detectable amounts of the problem substance within EBDC, called ethylenethiourea, or ETU.

These moves have won some praise in environmental and consumer circles.

``I think they've got religion now,'' says Ned Groth, associate technical director of Consumers Union. ``They are really interested in solving problems before they get to that [Alar] stage.'' It remains to be seen whether that momentum is sustained or not, he adds.

The Alar scare began 13 months ago with a television show. A segment of the CBS-TV investigative program ``60 Minutes'' reported on a new study by an environmental group that warned that 6,000 children might eventually get cancer because of apples treated with Alar. Meryl Streep, a popular actress, testified before Congress. And the public responded en masse.

School systems pulled apples from their school-lunch programs. Parents reportedly poured apple juice down the drain. Apple sales nose dived. Even the Schramms, who do not use Alar and do not buy Alar-treated apples, saw customers at their roadside market switch from red to green apples. (Alar, a growth-regulating chemical, promotes redness in apples, and, thus, the scare primarily hit red apples.)

Finally, federal officials held a press conference to assure the public no immediate health threat existed. Even so, sales continued to fall into the summer.

The scare woke up all segments of agriculture. Food-processing firms, agri-chemical companies, even fertilizer manufacturers face heightened concerns over chemicals in the food supply. ``We were the heroes of the past,'' says Gary Myers, president of the Fertilizer Institute in Washington, D.C. ``It's the first time we have really been asked these tough questions.''

For many environmentalists, these pressures represent the end of an era. ``The handwriting is on the wall that the days of hydrocarbon chemistry in pest management are coming to a close,'' says Jack Doyle of Friends of the Earth, a national environmental organization.

But for growers like the Schramms, the answers are not that easy.

``I don't like using them,'' Ralph says of the pesticides, ``but it's a necessity if I want to compete.'' He is trying to figure out what EBDC substitutes he will use to try to protect his orchards and his vegetables, which will be especially vulnerable without EBDC.

``I think you are going to see reduced usage of chemicals,'' adds John. But ``with the way agriculture is structured today, I don't think you can get away from chemicals [completely].''

One in a series of occasional articles on life in the United States.

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