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Barely Off the Ground : Regulations Keep the Growing Number of 'Natural' Pesticides From Taking Off

September 06, 1993|DONALD WOUTAT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAVIS, Calif. — When a Danish maker of safe, "natural" pesticides decided to open a research arm in the United States, it set up shop in this college town, a fertile center of new-age agricultural science.

But because of a regulatory posture that in some ways is as out-of-date as DDT, California will be the last place in the country where the environmentally friendly little microbes can be sold.

"We (will) just sell in all the other states first," says Pamela Marrone, president of Entotech, a research subsidiary of pesticide maker Novo Nordisk.

This kind of anomaly is routine in the convoluted world of pesticide policy and regulation, in which more than 30 years of state and federal action have often perpetuated old problems and discouraged solutions.

While disputes rage on about just what danger is posed by pesticides and what to do about them, virtually all sides in the pesticide debate agree on one thing:

The nation's effort to protect both the economic interests of farmers, along with the safety of the environment and the public, is hamstrung by contradictory policies, entrenched agribusiness interests and habits, bureaucratic gridlock and misplaced regulatory zeal.

"It makes you wonder if there's hope for the human race," says William Liebhardt, director of UC Davis' Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.

Entotech's naturally occurring bacteria are part of a fast-growing universe of biologically based pesticides that are widely accepted as safer than their petrochemical forebears.

But they still must be approved for farm use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which takes as long to deliberate over so-called bio-rational pesticides as it does the more toxic products.

Then, in the name of heightened public safety, California requires that many tests--some irrelevant to bio-rational pesticides--be duplicated and tougher measurements met, a process that can take an additional two years.

In the meantime, fruit and vegetable growers continue to spray old-fashioned chemical pesticides on their crops--toxic but legal products protected by the same regulatory inertia that stifles the improved technologies.

"They have to go through one idiotic mechanism at the EPA level, then they've got to go through another one here," admits James W. Wells, director of California's Department of Pesticide Regulation. "We've created a process and restrictions that don't match the new technology."

Progress--in the form of innovative efforts by farmers in California and elsewhere to wean themselves from their heavy reliance on chemical pesticides--seems to have been made despite government policy, rather than because of it.

There is anecdotal, but inconclusive, evidence that overall farm pesticide use has bottomed out in California and some other states. Some farmers, occasionally aided by the government but mainly in anticipation of ever tougher restrictions, have managed big reductions in chemical use through various techniques.

The Clinton Administration took official notice of the policy failures several weeks ago when three agencies responsible for safe food--the EPA, Food and Drug Administration and Agriculture Department--announced plans for regulatory reform and pledged to reduce the use of unsafe pesticides on the farm.

"It's a course we embarked on a year and a half ago," Wells says. He was referring to a state pesticide task force of farmers, pesticide makers, environmentalists and regulators that is trying to identify the regulatory obstacles to the spread of safer farming practices.

The White House initiative was triggered by a National Academy of Sciences report that said pesticide residues on food might pose a threat to children, whose vulnerability physically is not taken into account by government standards that set acceptable levels of residues.

But the government promised throughout the 1980s to make sense of pesticide policies and regulations, critics say, with little to show for it.

They describe a patchwork system that evolved from the early 20th Century, when the toxic pesticide of concern was arsenic. After the 1962 publication of "Silent Spring"--a book by author Rachel Carson warning about the dangers of pesticides--new laws were enacted and the regulatory apparatus grew to support them.

A generally parallel system, focused heavily on farm workers' safety, developed in California. Here, some standards are higher and testing is stricter than at the EPA due to "a lack of trust" that the federal agency does an adequate job, Wells said.

Today's laws require a short-staffed EPA to pass separate judgments on thousands of ingredients, for combatting each of hundreds of categories of pests, afflicting each of hundreds of kinds of crops, grown in each of dozens of climates, soils and surroundings.

Once the EPA gives its approval, pesticide companies must then separately get the blessing of California.

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