Pesticide Industry to Use Tax Dollars to Attack Critics
WASHINGTON, Sept. 21 -- The California Department of Food and Agriculture has awarded $180,000 in federal funds to finance an agribusiness-chemical industry plan to combat its critics – Environmental Working Group and other health, consumer and organic farming advocates who have campaigned against overuse of pesticides on food crops.
The Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF), a Watsonville, California, trade association representing more than 50 large produce growers and marketers and pesticide and fertilizer suppliers, is slated for a slice of California’s $17.5 million share of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crops Block Grant program, which Congress set up in 2004 to improve “efficiency, productivity and profitability” in farming of vegetables, fruits, nuts and flowers. The 2008 farm bill expanded the specialty crops program, mandating that USDA distribute $55 million in state block grants in 2010, and the same for 2011 and 2012, to advance “buy local” campaigns and other efforts to make produce, nuts and flower crops more competitive.
California officials announced last Friday (Sept. 17) that the Alliance for Food and Farming would receive $180,000 to “correct the misconception that some fresh produce items contain excessive amounts of pesticide residues.” The state press release added that the grant would go to rebut “claims by activist groups about unsafe levels of pesticides [that] have been widely reported in the media for many years, but have largely gone uncontested. … The goal is to generate more balanced media reporting and change public perception about the safety of produce when it comes to pesticide residues.”
Last July, the Alliance for Food and Farming attacked Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) influential “Shopper’s Guide To Pesticides In Produce,” introduced more than a decade ago to advise consumers about high concentrations of pesticide residues in conventional produce.
“This grant is a slap in the face of California’s rapidly-advancing organic agriculture sector,” said Ken Cook, president and founder of Environmental Working Group. “While conventional produce has seen demand stagnate, organics are enjoying dynamic growth. The state should think twice about using U.S. taxpayers’ money to attempt to give chemical-dependent industrial farming a competitive edge over organics.”
“The block grant program supports some initiatives that we believe are worthwhile,” Cook said. “But the grant in question shows how a good program can be distorted. I think most taxpayers would say this is exactly the kind of thing they don’t want their money spent on. It ends up going to serve the agribusiness agenda. If these well-heeled corporate farming interests want to talk people out of buying organic or low-pesticide food, they ought to spend their own money to do it.”
Over the past decade, organic fruit and vegetable sales have soared from 3 percent of the retail produce market in the U.S. in 2000 to nearly 11 percent last year, to $9.5 billion. According to surveys by the Organic Trade Association, organic produce’s precipitous trajectory barely slowed when the global financial crisis took hold in late 2008. The stunning gains make a sharp contrast to the otherwise lackluster market for conventional fruits and vegetables in recent years.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) reports that Americans’ per capita annual consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables has been roughly flat for the past two decades. U.S. vegetable consumption has slumped slightly, according to USDA, to 92.2 pounds per person per year in 2008, from an all-time peak of 101 pounds in 1999.
According to the Pesticide Action Network of North America, an advocacy group that compiles data on pesticide use, in 2008 California growers deployed 161 million pounds of pesticides on all crops. They used 53 million pounds of pesticides on crops whose growers comprise the Alliance for Food and Farming: head lettuce, leaf lettuce, celery, spinach, tomatoes, avocados, table and raisin grapes, wine grapes, peaches and strawberries.
According to public records examined by EWG the Alliance for Food and Farming is chaired by Matt McInerney, executive vice president of Western Growers Association, an Irvine, Calif., based organization of large California and Arizona farmers.
California officials last week awarded the Western Growers Association two grants totaling $942, 278 to create a website and other communications activities to promote specialty crops.
Last July, the Alliance for Food and Farming set up a web site and press webinar to attack EWG’s Pesticide Guide, contending that there is “no scientific evidence” that a small amount of pesticide residue on food “represents any health risk.”
According to EWG’s reviews of public record, the Alliance board is comprised of:
Richard L. Peterson – Executive director, California Dried Plum Board
Matt McInerney – Executive vice president, Western Growers Association
Jim Howard – Vice president, California Table Grape Commission
Rick Tomlinson – Director of government affairs, California Strawberry Commission
Ed Beckman – President, California Tomato Farmers; former President of CA Tomato Commission
Barry Bedwell – President, California Grape & Tree Fruit League
Bruce Knobeloch – Chief operating officer, River Ranch Fresh Foods, LLC
Mark Murai – President, California Strawberry Commission
Kathleen Nave – President, California Table Grape Commission
Sheri Mierau – Vice president of sales and marketing, Fruit Patch Sales LLC
Rosanna Westmoreland – Communications manager, California Farm Bureau Federation
Claire Smith – Director, corporate communications, Sunkist Growers, Inc.
Terry Stark – Executive Director, California Association of Pest Control Advisers
Dave Kranz – Communications, California Farm Bureau Federation
Renee Pinel – President and chief executive officer, Western Plant Health Association
Bryan Silbermann – President and chief executive officer, Produce Marketing Association
Bob Whitaker – Chief science officer, Produce Marketing Association