Fruit grower Parry Klassen donned protective coveralls and a respirator last month, mixed up a tankful of chemicals and rolled a tractor between the rows of peach and nectarine trees on his 10-acre patch, shooting a worm-killing pesticide into the leafy branches.
He says the chemical, a type known as an organophosphate, is his best, and often only, line of defense against the peach twig borer and the Oriental fruit moth--perennial pests that can drill into the fruit and wreck harvests for thousands of farmers.
But there’s a problem: In the pantheon of pesticides, organophosphates, or OPs, are considered the most lethal--to human beings as well as insects.
Come next year, under a sweeping new food safety law, the federal government might very well plow them under.
Because of their potency, OPs--initially used as chemical warfare agents--are the first class of insect killers to face renewed scrutiny under the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. The law imposes stricter standards that for the first time measure the cumulative effects of similar pest-killing compounds on people. It also puts special emphasis on eliminating exposure to children and infants.
Under the act, all pesticides must be reevaluated over the next decade to determine when and in what doses they may be used. That review will encompass 300 active ingredients and nearly 10,000 uses. By August 1999 alone, officials must reassess 3,000 uses of dozens of organophosphates and carbamates, a similar group of pesticides that is also ubiquitous in farming.
It is likely to mean unprecedented prohibitions against widely used pesticides. For agriculture, the changes promise to be even more significant than the move away from DDT and related insect killers in the late 1960s and 1970s.
At the very least, the shift will accelerate the transition--already underway on the nation’s fruit and vegetable farms--to biologically based pest management methods and reduced-risk pesticides.
The environmental community says it will settle for nothing less, citing rising concern that OPs can disrupt the brain development of fetuses and infants.
But the prospect of a ban has spooked Klassen and scores of other growers in California, where OPs are among the most prevalent pest stoppers.
Alternative treatments, if they exist, often cost four times as much and are far less effective, farmers say. For many growers, organophosphates mean the difference between profit and financial hardship.
“For a relatively small farmer that works in the orchard on weekends, I’ve got enough money wrapped up in this that I can’t afford any mistakes,” Klassen said.
The loss of these chemicals, growers contend, could decrease crop yields, boost dependence on imports and raise food prices, making it tougher for poor Americans to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. It could also complicate life for homeowners, since many of these same products are used to kill crab grass and cockroaches.
The consequences could be especially acute in California, the leading agricultural state and the primary or sole supplier of several foods, such as lettuce and almonds, whose producers depend on organophosphates. Such “minor,” small-acreage crops usually do not warrant the costly research by chemical companies into less toxic alternative pest treatments.
Despite OPs’ importance, “they’re well worth doing away with,” said Robert L. Bugg, an entomologist at UC Davis who helps farmers reduce the use of synthetic chemicals. “We have yet to develop farm families and farm workers that have resistance, and I don’t see that on the horizon,” he added.
Organophosphates are related to nerve gases such as sarin, which was used in a lethal 1995 attack in the Tokyo subway. Among the least toxic is malathion, sprayed in years past in California to kill Mediterranean fruit flies. At the high-risk end is chlorpyrifos, used to fumigate buildings.
Growers offer a litany of reasons why OPs and carbamates should not be zapped. The chemicals, which kill insects through their nervous systems, treat a wide variety of pests at low cost and break down quickly in the environment. They are used in rotation with other treatments, which helps keep insect pests from developing resistance.
They are often used when crops are dormant, so the chemicals don’t come into direct contact with the fruits or vegetables. And, by using OPs, growers say, they can cut down on the total amount of pesticide they must use.
However, such convenience comes at a price for public health. Since 1982 in California, more than 6,600 poisonings--with symptoms ranging from vomiting to blurred vision--have been linked to OPs and carbamates; just under half involved farm workers. The chemicals also have caused 16 deaths since 1982, most involving their use to commit suicide.
Such episodes are believed to result from direct contact with the chemicals. Farmers and farm workers are at the highest risk of accidental exposure because they mix and load the chemicals, apply them in the fields and then harvest crops that have been sprayed. Workers are required to wear protective gear and generally must use enclosed mixing systems and tractor cabs. California also strictly regulates the number of days workers must wait before reentering fields that have been treated.
When it comes to pesticides, farmers are often likened to Chicken Little.
“Growers and companies always claim the sky will fall when EPA is poised to take a chemical off the market,” said Lawrie Mott, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. When it comes to protecting their crops, she added, “farmers will figure out a way.”
But the cure can be worse than the canker. In the late 1970s, when the fumigant DBCP was deemed too toxic, farmers protested that they would no longer be able to grow citrus in California.
Sure enough, they found alternatives--among them methyl bromide, which is acutely toxic and has since been found to deplete Earth’s protective ozone layer.
Although little is known about the long-term effects of mild or repeated contact to organophosphates, indications are mounting that exposure--from residues in food and drinking water and from use in homes and schools--can damage the nervous and immune systems, particularly in infants. Acute overexposure causes flu-like symptoms, and longer-term problems include impaired vision, anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, headache and emotional instability.
Many claims that OP exposure led to long-term health problems have ended up in court in this and other countries. The chemicals have also been implicated as contributing to the mysterious, debilitating symptoms known as Gulf War Syndrome.
In many cases, OP residues are not detectable once foods reach consumers. However, the chemicals are prevalent enough that most people are exposed daily to a couple of these chemicals through their food--especially if the individuals are eating fresh or processed fruits and vegetables.
It is hardly news that pesticide residues exist in food. Over the years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has allowed thousands of uses of pesticides on food crops, concluding that the benefits outweighed the risks. And the nation’s food supply is reputedly the safest in the world.
But the recent rash of food-borne illness outbreaks also has spotlighted how elusive absolute safety can be. And the ongoing boom in sales of organic foods--grown for the most part without the use of synthetic chemicals--indicates that many shoppers are becoming more aware of potential dangers.
Lately, the EPA has begun taking a harder line against chemicals. For all practical purposes, the new law bars regulators from considering any benefits when assessing the risk of using insect killers.
Thus, farmers see the new policy as unfairly setting up an either-or situation: Save our infants or save the asparagus industry. Some toxicologists contend that the EPA is exaggerating the potential human risk by making absurd leaps.
Carl K. Winter, a toxicologist who heads the FoodSafe Program at UC Davis, noted that a pesticide used on peaches could be deemed unsafe because assumptions are made that the grower is using the highest level of pesticide possible, the pesticide residues on the fruit are the highest allowed, and the consumer eats several peaches each day for 25 years.
“We can be so risk-averse that we end up creating a huge challenge down the road in terms of food quality and quantity,” said Charles S. Johnson, chief executive of Pioneer Hi-Bred International in Des Moines, the leading developer of genetically altered seed. “Life is not without risk.”
If risk alone were considered, then “yes, it would be prudent” not to use OPs, said Leonard P. Gianessi, senior research associate at the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, a Washington research organization funded by government and industry. But it’s another matter, he added, “if we’re talking about the asparagus or the grape industry going out of business.”
Agribusiness executives anticipate big woes if OPs go the way of DDT. Farmers in Mexico and other produce-growing nations that compete with California, they claim, could continue to use dangerous, cheap chemicals, putting those countries at a marketing advantage.
And in California, the inadequacy of alternative pesticides to cope with insects might even force growers to hire extra workers to cull infested produce, they maintain.
“We can’t ship lettuce with bugs and worms,” said Todd Kodet, produce manager for Bruce Church Inc., a big Salinas vegetable grower. “People get very upset when they see pests in their produce.”
But such dire scenarios are unlikely, said Chuck Benbrook, a longtime consultant on OPs and other pesticides in Sandpoint, Idaho. Offering one of the most reasoned viewpoints in the vitriolic debate, Benbrook predicts that only one-third of the organophosphates and carbamates now in use will be banned over the next five years because of EPA-imposed restrictions. Use of several others will be modified.
“Most people in agriculture,” he added, “will acknowledge that three to five years is enough time for growers to learn how to use . . . new alternatives.”
One solution, he said, would be for chemical producers to drive down the cost of safer pesticides. Dow AgroSciences, an Indianapolis-based unit of Dow Chemical Co., recently registered one such alternative, called Success. It treats a broad range of pests in minor crops without harming people or beneficial insects, but Benbrook said it is too expensive to win wide acceptance.
Success is so important that “we’re betting the farm on it,” said Elin D. Miller, director of government and public affairs for Dow AgroSciences. In the meantime, though, the company continues to sell huge quantities of two highly toxic OP products, Lorsban and Dursban.
When legislators proposed the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996, they unexpectedly managed to mollify farm groups and environmentalists alike. The bill breezed through Congress and was promptly signed by President Clinton.
Under the law, the government was required for the first time to look at the cumulative health effects of related chemicals in food. Previously, the government analyzed pesticides one by one to determine “safe” levels of exposure.
Also for the first time, regulators assessing risk would have to consider all possible sources of exposure to those chemicals for human beings. Exposure could come from products used to kill fleas on pets or aphids in home-grown tomatoes, from drinking water, and from pesticides for treating worms on farmers’ apples.
In another innovation, officials were directed to use newly devised--some critics say unproven--methods to evaluate risk from pesticide exposure. In the case of children, because definitive data about the effects of pesticides do not exist, the law directed the EPA to apply a far tougher safety standard for certain foods that infants consume--10 times stricter than the limits it now sets. Those foods include apples, peaches, pears, carrots, corn, potatoes, fresh green beans, tomatoes and peas.
At first, farm groups were sanguine about the legislation--mainly because it seemed an improvement over a 40-year-old statute that contained the notorious “Delaney clause,” which they said illogically prevented the development of safer pesticides.
But farm groups grew edgy early this year when EPA officials suggested they would take a hard line on interpreting the new law, putting organophosphates in danger. Intense lobbying by growers spurred Vice President Al Gore, an avowed environmentalist and presumed future presidential candidate, to assuage these key constituents by directing the EPA to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on its pesticide review.
At his behest, a 50-member panel, including representatives from agriculture, chemical companies and environmental groups, was created to help weigh the need to protect people against the need to protect crops. Gore also insisted that the EPA use sound science and guarantee farmers time to make a transition to alternatives if a chemical is banned.
Now it is environmentalists’ turn to fret. They fear that EPA officials will give too much weight to farm interests’ concerns and back off from aggressive enforcement.
Meanwhile, growers continue to sound the alarm.
In a hearing last month before a House agriculture panel, grower Kenny Evans, president of the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation, chided the EPA for not moving more quickly to allow alternative pesticides for minor crops, which could help farmers move away from OPs.
“Essential crop protection products may be lost before new ones replace them,” he protested, “leaving farmers defenseless.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Under the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the next decade must reevaluate all pesticides to determine when and in what doses they may be used. First in line for scrutiny, by August 1999, will be organophosphates, among the most widely used--and most toxic--chemicals in California. It is likely that many of them will be banned or that tougher restrictions will be imposed.
What are they? Organophosphates, or OPs, are related to nerve gases such as sarin, which was used in a deadly 1995 attack in Tokyo’s subway. They include malathion, used in the past in California to kill Mediterranean fruit flies, and chlorpyrifos, used to fumigate buildings.
How are they used? OPs are used to kill bugs and worms on cotton and a broad range of fruits, nuts and vegetables. OP products also are widely used in schools and households to kill fleas on pets, aphids on roses and crab grass.
Symptoms of exposure: Even a small amount of an organophosphate on the skin can cause flu-like symptoms. Among other reported chronic effects are irritability, impaired memory, inability to concentrate, confusion, blurred vision and fatigue.
The growers’ view: OPs are the best--often only--line of defense against an array of damaging insects. They help farmers cut down on the total amount of pesticide used. They are inexpensive and break down quickly in the environment. A ban would result in reduced yields and higher produce prices.
The environmentalists’ view: OPs are highly toxic to farm workers and farm families. Evidence is mounting that low-level exposure can affect brain development and harm the immune systems in fetuses and young children. If the pesticides are banned or sharply restricted, growers will figure out other ways to protect crops.