Agriculture has "failed" to educate the public about the need for farm chemicals, a top state health official told a food safety conference here.
Douglas Okamura, chief of pesticide enforcement for California's Department of Food and Agriculture, also conceded that government regulators share some of the blame for the public's confusion in the controversy over use of these compounds.
"The public doesn't trust the government nor what we have to say any more," Okamura told about 100 people who attended last week's gathering sponsored by California Polytechnic State University here.
One reason Okamura gave for the lack of credibility: His agency must satisfy such diverse sectors, including the public, the media, politicians and the food industry.
"We are getting jerked in every direction possible and it is difficult to do our job properly," he said.
Okamura's comments were echoed by a number of speakers who decried consumers' failure to understand the need to control damaging insects, mold and weeds on farms.
"People don't know whom to listen to or believe," said Arthur Craigmill, a toxicologist from UC Davis. "Everyone (with a vested interest in pesticide issues) has stepped forward and said, 'trust me.' . . . People in the middle are left out of these things."
An environmental activist who also addressed the group said that the public is actually reacting to real health threats posed by some of the farm chemicals being used today and is not confused.
"The government is trying to present a story that there are no problems out there and, as a result, they are failing to provide consumers with credible information," said Lawrie Mott, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. "Current laws are not working as well as they could be."
As an example, Mott cited the continued application of the pesticide aldicarb. The compound, trademarked as Temik, was the chemical found to cause hundreds of poisonings when it was used illegally on California watermelon in 1985. Although the manufacturer, Rhone-Poulenc, has voluntarily suspended its sales of aldicarb for widespread use on potatoes, the pesticide is still being applied to other produce items such as bananas.
"Aldicarb is one of the most toxic chemicals known to exist," according to Mott, whose group is calling for a federal ban of the compound. Residues, such as those from aldicarb, pose a greater risk to children who may be more vulnerable to such toxins in food than adults, she said.
While not directly commenting on the continued use of aldicarb, Okamura said that California growers had learned a lesson from the 1985 watermelon poisoning and are more careful today.
He estimates that only 0.7% of the 15,000 produce items analyzed by his agency this year will be found to have violative levels of farm chemicals, or residues above what the state allows on food. This is the third consecutive year in which the number of such violations has declined.
"This data shows that farmers and agriculture are not just dumping chemicals out there," Okamura said.
Nevertheless, in the years to come "farmers will have to look at reducing pesticide usage from current levels," Okamura said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is also working toward this goal, Mott said, adding that farm chemical reductions will not be as difficult as some claim.
"Clearly there are ways to farm without pesticides," she said, mentioning organic and the integrated pest management approaches to growing crops. Each of these methods minimizes or eliminates the use of synthetic chemicals.
"We are not saying that there should be no chemicals used in agriculture or that all farms should be organic," Mott said. However, she believes that 19 chemicals currently approved for use on crops are proven carcinogens and should be phased out by 1995.
Not only are the compounds a concern, but Mott was also critical of the methods of application. For instance, she claims that only 0.1% of those chemicals applied by agriculture actually reach the target pest.
"Ninety-nine percent of these compounds leave the (target) site and the full extent of the contamination (they may cause) isn't known," she said.
Craigmill, of UC Davis, disputed Mott's figures.
"Only in some instances--such as aerial spraying--does 0.1% of the chemical reach the target," he said, adding that ground application of pesticides is the most effective usage whether distributed mechanically on tractors or manually by workers.
Statistical disputes such as the one between Mott and Craigmill make life difficult for agriculture, an industry representative said.
"There is a great deal of confusion out there and, because of it, we have real problems," said Clark Biggs, information services director for the California Farm Bureau Federation in Sacramento.
Biggs said that consumer surveys conducted by his group found that there are "serious problems with the perception of pesticides in agriculture."
Heightened public fears about chemical residues in food are certain to play an important role in determining the fate of two important initiatives that will appear on the November ballot. The first is the Environmental Protection Act of 1990, also known as "big green." It's designed to limit agriculture's applications of known carcinogens on crops. The second, sponsored by elements of the food industry, is the Consumer Pesticide Enforcement Act. It would place fewer restrictions on pesticides than the competing initiative.
In sponsoring the conference, Cal Poly's Agribusiness Department and the school's Brock Center for Agricultural Communication hoped to expand the dialogue on these and other food-related issues.
"We need to get the word out to the public so that they can better understand agriculture," said Warren Baker, Cal Poly's president.