Recently, a Washington pesticide bill quietly made its way through the state Legislature. The form of Senate Bill 6529 that passed in late January is, thankfully, but a shadow of the original bill Washington farmers defined as destructive.
Proponents of the original bill described it as “common sense” and attested that it was an act to protect agricultural workers and community members from pesticides. According to representatives of farm groups ranging from potato and wheat growers to berry farmers, both conventional and organic, common sense more accurately defined the original bill as disastrous for Washington agriculture.
As originally written, the bill would have required:
- Farmers and other pesticide users to notify the Department of Health (DOH) four business days prior to any pesticide application
- Farmers and other pesticide users to submit pesticide records to the DOH on a monthly basis
- The DOH to develop a list of individuals who wish to be notified regarding pesticide applications on adjacent property and to notify residents and schools within a 1/4-mile radius 2-hour notification prior to application
- The DOH to make the data accessible to the public in a searchable, aggregated form without identifying the submitting applicators
- The DOH to investigate violations and assess civil fines up to $7,500
On the surface, a bill described as one to protect agricultural workers and the public might seem like common sense. Unfortunately, the writers and proponents of the bill failed to recognize that significant restrictions, regulations and penalties already exist for pesticide application. They also failed to consider the implications on farming and food production.
FARMING IS AN UNPREDICTABLE SCIENCE
Pests and related diseases already destroy 20% to 25% of U.S. crops. Pesticide application should ideally occur within hours of identifying a need in order to prevent extensive damage. Requiring a four-day waiting period for pesticide application leaves farmers helplessly watching as insects and disease cause widespread destruction. Pesticide application is also weather dependent, in terms of both safety and efficacy. Farmers can’t plan application four days out with the unpredictability of weather, such as wind. Heavy winds or rain could leave a farmer unable to apply crop protection after waiting four days, requiring another four-day waiting period. This regulation could actually produce unintended results, leaving farmers with no choice but to spray preventatively, instead of only when needed.
STRICT REGULATIONS ARE ALREADY IN PLACE
Pesticide use is already highly regulated by several agencies, including the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I), the Department of Agriculture (WSDA), and the Department of Health (DOH). Pesticide drift is already illegal and incredibly rare. The chance of an exposure incident from drift has remained steady between 2010 and 2015, averaging only 0.0008%. Cases of misapplication are already punishable by regulating agencies and are already subject to fines. Farmers are already required to notify schools 48 hours prior to an application and the WSDA already administers a sensitive persons list, ensuring that individuals on the list are notified of applications adjacent to their property. Our farmers are already required to maintain impeccable records of all pesticide applications and make them available for examination by regulating agencies.
SEEKING A COLLABORATIVE SOLUTION
Thankfully, the version of SB 6529 passed through Washington legislature establishes a much more collaborative approach. The redundant regulations and destructive waiting period are gone – for now. Instead, the revised bill appoints a “pesticide application safety work group” tasked with: reviewing current laws, understanding how pesticides are applied, evaluating existing reports and recommending a “pesticide drift exposure notification system.” Rather than relying on misunderstandings about agriculture and accusing farmers of irresponsible and reckless practices, language in the revised bill states that “collaboration between state agencies and the farming community can assist in further minimizing exposure of agricultural workers to pesticide drift.”
Hopefully, this new work group will be a true collaboration between state agencies and the farming community to establish best practices for all. Hopefully, it will seek to make any regulatory decisions based on knowledge about how farmers actually apply pesticides and an understanding of implications to our food production system, rather than relying on misunderstandings about agriculture and vilifying farmers as irresponsible and reckless. Hopefully, the results will find solutions that ensures safety for agricultural workers without making it too costly to farm.
The work group, led by state Agriculture and Health departments is expected to deliver their report to the Legislature and the governor on November 2018. It is reported that the group will also include legislators and representatives from Labor and Industries, the Department of Natural Resources, the Commission on Hispanic Affairs and the state schools office. The agriculture director and health secretary will appoint 10 other members, including representatives from farm groups, pesticide applicators, labor groups, environmental organizations, farmworker and children’s advocates and the Washington State PTA.