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California and the West

Farmers Using More Chemicals, Analysis Shows

Environment: Although producers of a few crops are moving away from such methods, the state's growers have increased use of toxic substances overall.

March 29, 2000|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FRESNO — In the eternal battle to outduel nature, farmers up and down California are increasing their use of carcinogenic and other harmful chemicals to produce the richest agricultural bounty in the nation.

The first comprehensive study of pesticide use statewide reveals a widening chemical divide among California fruit, vegetable and grain growers--a cause for both worry and optimism, according to a San Francisco-based watchdog group that conducted the detailed computer analysis.

The Pesticide Action Network examined five years of reports on pesticide use that were filed with the state by farmers and broke down the trends crop by crop. Overall, more than 50 million pounds of harsh fungicides, herbicides, insecticides and soil fumigants were applied to California farm fields in 1998--a 3-million-pound increase since 1994. At the same time, growers of several crops such as grapes, peaches and nectarines were leading the way in a steady movement toward less use of toxic chemicals.

"When you look at grapes and tree fruit, there's genuine cause for optimism," said Susan Kegley, a chemist who oversaw the six-month study, which will be released in May by the watchdog group. "But overall, the use of toxic farm chemicals remains high or has gone up for many crops, and the state has no plan in place to reverse that trend."

State regulators and farm groups don't dispute the numbers, but caution that trends in pesticide use--even over a five-year period--can be misleading in a state with such varying weather and insect challenges. Back-to-back wet years in 1997-1998, for example, skewed the state figures because growers were forced to resort to larger amounts of harsh fungicides, they say.

The state's own analysis shows that the use of pesticides linked to cancer grew by 7.5 million pounds from 1994 to 1998, a 32% increase. Unlike the watchdog group's study, the analysis by the state Department of Pesticide Regulation does not detail chemical use per acre and crop.

Some Growers Reducing Use

Despite a growing organic movement and a shift by some big growers to less toxic methods, the amount of harmful pesticides used by California growers has increased by 5% per acre since 1994, according to the study by the Pesticide Action Network, a nonprofit group that advocates reducing the use of toxic chemicals in farming.

Three decades after DDT and other harmful pesticides were banned in the name of public and environmental health, the use of agricultural chemicals linked to cancer and infertility grew from 6 pounds per acre in 1994 to 6.3 pounds per acre in 1998, the study found.

Kegley said that any constant or upward trend in such chemical use shows that California agriculture as a whole--despite tighter pesticide laws and heightened environmental awareness--has been reluctant to embrace a more earth-friendly approach.

Here in the state's heartland, a marvel of high-tech agriculture that is home to more than 250 crops, the chemical divide grows ever wider. Some fruit and vegetable growers--grape, orange, peach, nectarine, cauliflower--are using smaller amounts of toxic fungicides and soil fumigants while relying on an arsenal of compost and beneficial bugs.

At the same time, growers of carrots, pears, strawberries, watermelons, spinach and walnuts are using larger amounts of so-called bad actor chemicals. These compounds have been listed by state and federal agencies as posing an increased risk of cancer, infertility, developmental and nervous-system problems. Those possibly at risk include farm workers and residents living near the sprayed fields and consumers whose fruits and vegetables harbor residual amounts of the toxins.

Growers of table grapes lament that one season of heavy spraying to fight an infestation of mites or leafhoppers can disguise all the good things they are doing to cut back on pesticide use.

Grape grower Jack Pandol Jr., a member of one of Kern County's most prominent farm families and a former undersecretary at the state Environmental Protection Agency, said he has cut chemical use in half over the last decade and replaced synthetic fertilizers with manure-based compost.

The reduction, he said, is partly achieved by holding back chemical spraying until it's absolutely clear that his beneficial insects are not up to the task of controlling bad bugs. Also, he has found that some toxic chemicals are effective at a fraction of their prescribed doses.

"To fight a leafhopper, we sometimes use a product called Lanate, but at nowhere near the label amount," he said. "If we use Lanate when the insect is young and we combine it with certain nutrients, we can use it at one-eighth the label amount and still do a bang-up job controlling the insect."

Soil Fumigants Dominate

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