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A Bumper Crop of Poisons

Steep rise in pesticide use on California farmlands is alarming

September 19, 1997

It's enough to make your stomach turn: Between 1991 and 1995 California farmers increased by a whopping 129% the amount of cancer-linked chemicals sprayed, dusted and dumped on crops. And this in a state that has become a leading grower of organic fruits and vegetables.

The alarming statistic comes from a new study produced by a coalition of consumer and environmental groups, the Pesticide Action Network. Some of California's trademark crops, including strawberries, dates and lemons, are among those most heavily dosed, according to the study.

Officials at the state Department of Pesticide Regulation concede that pesticide use has risen in recent years but attribute much of the increase to unusual weather patterns and the planting of once-marginal farmland. Regulators permit the use of pesticides within a range of certain risks.

The growth in the use of toxic compounds is especially troubling given that in the San Joaquin Valley 400 square miles of farmland has been lost to suburban sprawl in the past decade. That means not only are farm workers increasingly exposed to these dangerous chemicals but so too are the folks in the new homes and schools now bordering fields.

If there is a way out of this problem it lies in farming techniques that most growers still only hesitantly embrace. An approach known as integrated pest management involves changes in irrigation patterns to control fungus and weeds and the use of benign insects to feed on crop pests, as well as less intensive use of chemical pesticides. Organic farming relies on building a strong microbial soil base in which to grow more robust crops, plus the use of chemicals that are not toxic to humans.

The acreage cultivated with organic techniques is still tiny, just 1% of farmland in California. Nonetheless, widespread concern over the rising use of pesticides has clearly fueled the growth in the consumer market for organic produce. Sales were up nationally by 20% a year over the past five years, despite the generally higher price of organic fruits and vegetables.

This dramatic leap in the organic market, along with ongoing programs to encourage research and demonstrations of farming techniques that move growers away from heavy pesticide use, offers the best hope of breaking agriculture's chemical dependency.

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