Congress has been toying with the idea of changing America's pesticide laws for years, but last week it was President Clinton who took the initiative on this issue.
Change is more than overdue: U.S. pesticide use has doubled over the last three decades in the aggregate, as well as, more ominously, in the number of pounds applied to each acre of harvested land. In that time, scientists have discovered that an unbelievable variety of chemicals can cause cancer--not just man-made chemicals but plenty of naturally occurring ones as well. As a result, a still small but increasing number of American growers are turning to farming techniques that rely less on chemicals.
NEW STANDARD: Amid the dithering in Congress, the Administration drew up a comprehensive reform of pesticide regulation and use. Much in this package, to be introduced as legislation soon, is wise and carefully thought through. Clinton's goals are twofold: First, the Administration wants to wean farmers from their increasing dependence on pesticides. Second, the federal agencies charged with pesticide regulation and enforcement want to radically change the standard upon which pesticide regulation historically has been based.
In drafting rules in the past, federal regulators considered the probable economic costs and benefits of a pesticide's use--or prohibition. In theory this makes sense, but in practice the system was abysmally ineffective. Under the President's proposal, such economic considerations would assume less importance; more decisive would be the health risk of individual pesticides.
This health-based standard would streamline the existing patchwork of pesticide laws. In most instances, the standard would mean lower pesticide residues in both U.S.-grown and imported fruits and vegetables. That's a big improvement over the current rules.
Also improved would be coordination among the federal agencies responsible for pesticide management--the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department. These agencies have too often worked at cross purposes or, worse, at the behest of the industries they were supposed to regulate.
Stepped-up research on pesticides and children is also part of the Clinton proposal. Federal pesticide regulation historically has been based on research with adults. Yet relatively, children eat more fruits and vegetables than adults, and their growing bodies metabolize these foods--and the pesticides in them--differently.
NEW TECHNIQUES: Finally, the Administration wants to increase, from the current 20% to 75% by the year 2000, the acreage using techniques less dependent on pesticides. Many farmers already using such techniques, including pest-resistant crops and release of "friendly pests," report they are able to maintain crop yields and quality with lower cost and without the gradual soil depletion linked to chronic pesticide use.
But there are potential problems in the Clinton package. The new proposal may not give agencies strong enough "teeth" to force dangerous pesticides off the market. Drafting new, tighter regulations may depend on the generation of more precise data on the health effects of more than 600 pesticides--for both adults and children.
In an era of tight funding, the price tag for this research could be high. And there may be a high political cost attached to the Administration's decision to relax the so-called Delaney Clause, a blanket ban on even the smallest residue of cancer-causing pesticides in processed foods. The ban, enacted 35 years ago as an amendment to the Food and Drug Act, was a good idea but has proved difficult to implement.
The President's goals are laudable. Now he must follow through.