Taxpayers Funding Pro-Pesticide PR Campaign

The Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF), a California trade association, wants you to have less information about pesticide residues on the fruits and vegetables you buy. That’s not too surprising; since the Alliance represents more than 50 large produce growers and marketers and the suppliers who sell them pesticides and fertilizer.

What is surprising is that taxpayers are now on the hook to fund the group’s pro-agrichemical PR campaign.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture is sending the Alliance $180,000 in federal funds to finance its plan to combat pesticide industry critics – Environmental Working Group and other health, consumer and organic farming advocates who have called attention to the overuse of pesticides on food crops.

In its Sept. 17 announcement, the California agency said the $180,000 will be used for:

Correcting Misconceptions about Pesticide Residues

The project seeks to correct the misconception that some fresh produce items contain excessive amounts of pesticide residues. Claims by activist groups about unsafe levels of pesticides have been widely reported in the media for many years, but have largely gone uncontested. Continued media coverage of this misleading information is damaging to producers of California specialty crops and may also have a negative impact on public health. Utilizing sound science backed by a team of nutrition and toxicological experts, the Alliance for Food and Farming will seek to provide the media, the public and various target audiences with information about the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables. The goal is to generate more balanced media reporting and change public perception about the safety of produce when it comes to pesticide residues.

The money comes out 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 the farming of vegetables, fruits, nuts and flowers. The 2008 farm bill expanded the program, mandating that USDA distribute $55 million in block grants in 2010, and again in 2011 and 2012, to support “buy local” campaigns and other efforts to make produce, nuts and flower crops more competitive.

At EWG, we’re pretty sure what this new handout of taxpayer cash will be used for.

Last July, the Alliance for Food and Farming attacked EWG’s influential “Shopper’s Guide To Pesticides In Produce,” introduced more than a decade ago to give consumers up-to-date information about pesticide residues on conventionally grown produce.

The Alliance built a web site and organized a press “webinar” to assault EWG’s Shopper’s Guide, contending that there is “no scientific evidence” that small amounts of pesticide residue on food “represents any health risk.” Other Big Ag fans of chemical farming, such as the lobby and trade organizations representing the industrial producers of pesticide-intensive corn, cheered the Alliance on while recently sneering at the seasonal constraints on local farmer’s markets.

In the decade since EWG began publishing the Shopper’s Guide, the US Environmental Protection Agency has moved to restrict the use of pesticides under the landmark Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) of 1996.  FQPA requires EPA to review the safety of each particular use of each agricultural pesticide at least once every 15 years. As of November 2009 EPA has reviewed 214 pesticide chemicals and 22,122 individual pesticide-crop combinations. These reviews have led to 3,885 products re-registered, 1,139 amended registrations, 6,224 cancellations, and 14 suspensions.

EPA’s actions under FQPA have been credited for a major reduction in pesticide risks, and in what was then considered revolutionary -- targeting pesticides in foods most commonly eaten by children. Every year EPA’s new assessments lead to restrictions in other uses of pesticides that the agency’s reviews of the latest science find can lead to unsafe exposures. Chemical agribusiness like those represented by the AFF might assert that pesticides in food are perfectly safe, but the reality is that many pesticide uses that are on the books as safe today will be found unsafe by EPA in the future, based on new science, new understandings about the mechanisms by which pesticides can harm the human body, or strengthened policies for health protection within the agency itself.

At EWG, we think the point is obvious: parents who are concerned about potentially toxic chemical residue on their kids’ food should be aware of which fruits and vegetables are most likely to be contaminated with pesticides, and which ones EPA might deem safe one day but hazardous the next.

Some major public health successes achieved by EPA on pesticides since 1996 include:

  • In August 2010 EPA announced that Bayer's production of the neurotoxic pesticide aldicarb would end by December 31, 2014. EPA’s new analysis of dietary risks had found that aldicarb uses did not meet safety standards, particularly for young children. Potatoes, citrus, and contaminated water pose the greatest risks.
  • In 2007, EPA canceled diazinon uses on about 20 different crops -- primarily vegetables -- including broccoli, sweet corn, melons, tomatoes  and spinach.
  • EPA also canceled the use of chlorpyrifos on tomatoes and restricted the use on apples.

So why the sudden pushback at EWG’s Shopper’s Guide?

At the time of AFF’s initial attack, I wrote in Huffington Post that “by every objective measure, an increasing number of Americans are voting with their pocketbooks for produce free of pesticides.” Over the past decade, organic fruit and vegetable sales have soared from 3 percent of the retail produce market in the U.S. to nearly 11 percent last year, a total of $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. These stunning gains contrast sharply with the lackluster market for conventionally grown fruits and vegetables in recent years. The USDA’s Economic Research Service reports that Americans’ per capita consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables has been roughly flat for the past two decades.

Over the weekend (Sept 24), the New York Times reported on the appalling state of fresh vegetable consumption in America:

Despite two decades of public health initiatives, stricter government dietary guidelines, record growth of farmers’ markets and the ease of products like salad in a bag, Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables.

This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a comprehensive nationwide behavioral study of fruit and vegetable consumption. Only 26 percent of the nation’s adults eat vegetables three or more times a day, it concluded. (And no, that does not include French fries.)

These results fell far short of health objectives set by the federal government a decade ago. The amount of vegetables Americans eat is less than half of what public health officials had hoped. Worse, it has barely budged since 2000.

“It is disappointing,” said Dr. Jennifer Foltz, a pediatrician who helped compile the report. She, like other public health officials dedicated to improving the American diet, concedes that perhaps simply telling people to eat more vegetables isn’t working.

“There is nothing you can say that will get people to eat more veggies,” said Harry Balzer, the chief industry analyst for the NPD Group, a market research company.

The Times’ piece underscores the notion that perhaps we should stop wasting taxpayers’ money on agribusiness outfits that can’t seem to market their way out of a disposable plastic produce bag, and instead put our precious government funds toward producing actual results:

“We have to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” Dr. Foltz said. And the choices need to become ingrained.

For another study whose results were announced this week, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, spent three years examining the difference between children who participated in the Berkeley Unified School District’s “edible schoolyard” program, in which gardening and cooking are woven into the school day, and children who didn’t.

The students who gardened ate one and half servings more of fruits and vegetables a day than those who weren’t in the program.

The grant to the Food and Farm Alliance amounts to a slap in the face of California’s rapidly advancing organic farming sector, giving a competitive advantage to chemically dependent growers. EWG president Ken Cook put it this way:

“The block grant program supports some initiatives that we believe are worthwhile. 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 serving 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.”

According to the most recent figures from the Pesticide Action Network of North America, an advocacy group that compiles data on pesticide use, California growers deployed 161 million pounds of pesticides on all crops in 2008. They used 53 million pounds on crops whose growers belong to the Alliance for Food and Farming: head lettuce, leaf lettuce, celery, spinach, tomatoes, avocados, table and raisin grapes, wine grapes, peaches and strawberries.

The Alliance insists it’s not out to keep consumers in the dark. When asked about the grant by Susanne Rust of California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Journalism, AFF Executive Director Marilyn Dolan said:

“We really want to emphasize that we are not about discouraging information. We are about encouraging consumption of all fruits and vegetables – both organic and conventional.”

But they don’t want consumers concerned about the pesticide safety to think about it too much.

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