Government pesticide and fertilizer data dropped

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has eliminated the only federal program that tracks the use of pesticides and fertilizers on American farms. The move has left scientists, industry groups, and public advocates surprised and confused about how to carry on their work without this free information.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has eliminated the only federal program that tracks the use of pesticides and fertilizers on American farms. The move has left scientists, industry groups, and public advocates surprised and confused about how to carry on their work without this free information. The canceled program was the only one to make freely available to the public nationwide data on the amount of pesticides and fertilizers applied to U.S. farms. In May, USDA announced that it had published the last of its Agricultural Chemical Usage reports, which are based on detailed surveys of farmers’ chemical use, collected since 1990 by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). In an unusual alliance, industry and environmental groups are lobbying USDA and Congress to restore the program, which costs $8 million out of an annual NASS budget of $160 million.

The program had many users and supporters in academia, industry, environmental and community groups, and government agencies. “The industry and the people who do dietary risk assessments in companies could not be more upset by this,” says Leonard Gianessi, director of the Crop Protection Research Institute at the CropLife Foundation, a nonprofit research center funded largely by CropLife America and other industry groups.


“If the program had the support of the industry, the agencies, the public, and [nongovernmental organizations], who did want to cut it?” asks Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental advocacy group.

Mark Miller, who heads the NASS environmental and demographic section, says the program fell victim to a shrinking budget. NASS prioritized programs that provide data for national economic indicators, such as commodity prices, or that directly impact commodity markets such as the Chicago Board of Trade, he says. Chemical usage did not meet these criteria. “Unless we get additional funding [from USDA or Congress], the program’s not coming back,” Miller says. The only remaining data collection on chemical usage will be for wheat, which USDA’s Economic Research Service will provide.

After a flurry of protests by agriculture and environmental groups, on July 21 the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended that USDA reinstate the chemical usage reports in the 2009 budget and directed the department “not to disrupt ongoing market analysis reporting and to notify the committee in advance of any termination of other ongoing NASS activities.” It remains unclear whether the Senate and the House of Representatives will agree to keep this language in the bill before it is passed into law.

“Irreplaceable” data

Many scientists say that the NASS data are essential for their research. For pesticides, the other major data sources are the California EPA’s statewide data and a national data set produced by the private company Doane Marketing Research (doing business as dmrkynetec but often referred to as Doane, a former parent company). However, Doane’s collection methods differ from NASS’s, and there are strict limits on how data can be publicly released to protect the company’s proprietary information. And Doane’s price tag—about $500,000 per year for a full national data set—is too steep for most academic and nonprofit users.

The NASS program worked by sending trained specialists, called enumerators, to a statistically determined selection of farms across the country to survey farmers’ actual application rates of pesticides and fertilizers. Enumerators helped farmers with calculations to produce more reliable data than self-reporting typically provides. Because of the cost and time required, not all crops or states were surveyed annually.

California is the only state requiring agricultural pesticide users to report to the government their chemical use on a monthly basis, detailing where, when, how much, and on what crop a pesticide was used. In contrast, the Doane data sets were not originally intended for public use or research purposes, but rather as a business tool for agricultural chemical manufacturers. As a private entity, Doane’s data collection methods are not entirely transparent, but they combine surveys with expert opinion to provide data on all major crops every year. Because researchers do not know exactly how the data were collected and cannot publicly release Doane’s raw numbers, many consider Doane’s data to be unreliable and inappropriate for their work.

The loss of data puts ongoing research programs at risk. Scientists studying integrated pest management (IPM), a set of strategies that reduce pesticide use, use NASS data to study farmers’ pest management practices and how effective they are, says Susan Ratcliffe, director of an IPM research center at the University of Illinois. “We can get a better feel for whether growers are moving away from high-risk compounds” with NASS data, she says. Ratcliffe also notes that in many states, farmers are shifting away from corn−soy rotation to continuous corn crops in response to biofuels trends, which will change pesticide practices. “The loss of this survey will leave a lot of unanswered questions,” she says.

Programs that monitor U.S. water quality will also suffer, says Janice Ward, who directs agricultural programs for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). “We depend on these data for helping to interpret our water-quality results,” she says. For example, the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program at USGS relies largely on NASS data to understand the sources of pesticides and nutrients found in streams and groundwater.

“What we really need is something like the California system nationwide, with complete reporting from the point of use instead of a survey,” says Robert Gilliom, who directs the Pesticide National Synthesis Project at USGS, which assesses pesticides in the nation’s streams and groundwater. “It’s the Cadillac of pesticide use data in the country.” However, Gilliom notes that other states such as Oregon that have proposed such a system have met with resistance from farmers because of the expense of reporting. Gilliom says his program relies heavily on NASS and hopes to buy older data from Doane, which is less expensive than current-year data, if Congress does not restore funding for the NASS program.

Charles Benbrook, chief scientist for the nonprofit research group the Organic Center, regularly probes the NASS database for trends in pesticide use that USDA does not analyze. His work has contradicted industry claims that genetically modified crops reduce pesticide use. “I will update my 2000 report [on pesticide use] soon, and it will be a lot harder for me to do it [without NASS data],” Benbrook says. He adds that the lack of publicly available information hurts the public the most. “Without NASS data, all the policy issues and debates that have been going on for the last 15 or 20 years over pesticide use would be based largely on speculation.”

Organizing opposition

Several groups sent letters to USDA and Congress, urging both to restore funding for the chemical-use survey program. The NRDC sent a letter May 20 signed by 44 environmental, sustainable-agriculture, and health-advocacy groups. The Association of American Pesticide Control Officials sent a similar letter to USDA, as did a coalition of agricultural groups, including commodity groups such as Syngenta Crop Protection, Inc., the Fertilizer Institute, and CropLife America.

The U.S. EPA and state governments also use NASS data, in combination with Doane’s data, to evaluate pesticide risk and set pesticide-use policies and regulations. The director of EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, Debra Edwards, recently sent a letter expressing concern about the NASS cuts to NRDC. “We have discussed with USDA the need for such reliable, publicly available data, but at the same time we are exploring alternative sources of information to ensure we can continue to provide robust pesticide risk assessments,” Edwards wrote in the letter.

So how did such a popular program find itself on the chopping block? Most people are not sure, although some have an explanation. “We took it for granted,” says Gianessi. He was on a 2006 NASS advisory panel that recommended against expanding the program but did not recommend cuts. At a 2008 advisory committee meeting with USDA, Gianessi complained that the panel’s 2006 report had been misinterpreted to justify rolling back data collection in 2007 to only three crops—cotton, apples, and organic apples. “We meant that the current surveys are taken for granted. Users are not demanding more and have been quietly going about their business of using the NASS surveys for the past 17 years,” Gianessi said at the 2008 meeting.

The bottom line, Gianessi says, is that “no one was shaking the table saying ‘don’t touch this’. If you’re a bureaucrat and no one’s shaking the table, you ignore them.”