Federal grants to promote pesticides? Oh, my.

More than 50 organizations concerned about the risks of pesticides to human health and the environment have joined forces to fight California officials' award of a $180,000 taxpayer-funded grant to a chemical agribusiness public relations campaign.

Outrageous federal grant The environmental, public health, consumer groups and farmers were responding to the state's Sept. 17 announcement of a grant to the Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF) to counter educational campaigns aimed at informing consumers about pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) said the grant would support the Alliance's efforts to "change public perception about the safety of produce when it comes to pesticide residues." Link to the CDFA's list of grants here: http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/Specialty_Crop_Competitiveness_Grants/FFY2010.htm...

The funding was provided through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Specialty Crop Block Grant program, but the state agency selected the recipients. The Alliance represents more than 50 large produce growers and marketers and the suppliers who sell them pesticides and fertilizer.

In their letter to CDFA Secretary A. G. Kawamura and Alfred G. Montna, president of the California Board of Food and Agriculture, the public interest organizations called on CDFA and USDA to "retract this award and take action to ensure that future grant-making serves the interests of all Californians." The full letter can be found here: https://www.ewg.org/groups-challenge-grant-for-pro-pesticide-campaign

The letter, organized by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Californians for Pesticide Reform, continued:

"The federally-funded Specialty Crops Block Grant (SCBG) Program in California is a valuable effort intended to support research, marketing and nutrition programs that help make produce, nuts and flower crops more competitive, accessible and in the case of research, more sustainable. While we strongly support this program, we object to the department's decision to fund an industry communications initiative against legitimate public interest concerns related to pesticide residues on food. The award of this grant strikes a blow to California's expanding organic produce industry and places the department in opposition to the public's interest in reducing pesticide exposure. This action also represents a fundamental failure to implement a fair and balanced grant selection process.

"Pesticide residues are a genuine problem: both peer-reviewed literature and the USDA food residue test database have found them on many conventionally-grown foods. Scientists have expressed valid concerns about the health risks posed by some of these chemicals. It is inappropriate for state and federal officials to categorically take the side of conventional agribusiness in this scientific and policy debate by funding a public relations effort designed to attack public interest organizations."

Kari Hamerschlag, a senior food and agriculture analyst at EWG, said,

"CDFA should be investing in programs to help promote greater sales and consumption of locally grown, organic and sustainably produced fruits and vegetables, instead of allowing corporate agribusiness to use taxpayer funds for its PR campaign in support of pesticides. This award cries out for a thorough review and reorientation of the criteria that determine how these resources are spent."

"Organic, fair and local farming is the future of agriculture," said Tracey Brieger, co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform. "Public money needs to support these solutions to air and water pollution and climate change, not fund initiatives that fuel the problem."

Concerns about the risks associated with pesticide exposure aren't limited to the advocacy community. The USDA and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have for decades conducted extensive research into the issue, which led to the phase-out of some pesticides found to be toxic, and in some cases potentially life-threatening, and to regulatory restrictions on a number of others.

The public interest groups called for a full accounting of how the decision to award the AFF grant was made. They also urged the state Department of Food and Agriculture and the Board of Food and Agriculture to establish a more balanced grant review committee, with greater representation from public interest groups and the organic specialty crop sector.

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