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Use of Pesticides Across State Reaches a Record Low for 2001

October 16, 2002|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Pesticide use in California dropped to a record low last year, with new regulatory restrictions, good weather and a state-sponsored push toward less-toxic chemicals contributing to a 36-million-pound decrease in applications.

In a preliminary analysis to be released today, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation reports that pesticide applications totaled 151 million pounds in 2001, compared with 188 million pounds the previous year.

Nearly all of the state's top 10 agricultural-producing counties reported decreases, including the robust Southern California farm counties of Ventura and San Diego.

It is the third straight year of reduced usage statewide and the lowest total since the department began collecting such data more than a decade ago, state officials said.

Most encouraging, officials said, was a continuing trend away from some of the most highly toxic chemicals, a range of potent pest killers that have long been the focus of environmentalists, farm worker groups and other advocates of reduced pesticide use.

"We're excited by the fact that the numbers are showing what we think is a good trend," Paul Helliker, the department's director, said. "Our focus has been on helping growers find [reduced-risk] alternatives while focusing on those chemicals that are the most dangerous. And I think we've seen the trend go in the right direction."

California's $30-billion-a-year agricultural industry accounted for most of the reported pesticide use.

The state's growers applied 137 million pounds of chemicals in 2001, down 35 million pounds from the previous year.

Once again, Fresno County was the state's leading pesticide user, followed by Kern, Tulare, Monterey and Madera counties. But pesticide use dropped in each of those counties, including a 28% decrease in Fresno County and a 22% decline in Tulare County -- the state's two largest farm counties and among the largest in the nation.

In Southern California, pesticide use dropped 6% in San Diego County and 5% in Orange County. Los Angeles and Riverside counties reported slight increases in pesticide use.

Ventura County reported the biggest decrease in Southern California, reducing its reliance on toxic chemicals by 10%, or 724,000 pounds. The county ranked as the ninth-biggest pesticide user in the state in 2001, down a notch from 2000.

Susan Johnson, pesticide deputy for Ventura County's agricultural commissioner, said county growers have for years been moving toward less toxic remedies, such as petroleum and mineral oils, to battle bugs and weeds.

"I think our story is the story of agriculture in California in general," Johnson said. "The move is toward more reduced-risk material and away from the general kind of material that kills everything."

While applauding efforts to reduce pesticide use and find less-toxic alternatives, anti-pesticide advocates caution that the numbers can be deceiving.

They note, for instance, that statewide use of the controversial cropland fumigant methyl bromide from 2000 to 2001 was down 4 million pounds, or 39%. But production of methyl bromide, long targeted for elimination because it is highly toxic and depletes the earth's ozone layer, is being phased out and is set to be banned altogether by 2005.

That has sparked a scramble to find alternatives. And in some cases, growers have simply switched to other chemicals, which carry their own concerns.

"I think it's great that the overall levels of pesticide use have decreased," said Eric Cardenas, director of a Santa Barbara-based health project aimed at reducing pesticide-related health risks to farm workers and those who live near farms.

"However, the fact remains that millions of pounds of pesticides, some of them highly toxic, continue to be used in our agricultural operations," Cardenas added. "And that's a concern to the many people who work in the fields and live next to agricultural areas."

State officials say there are several reasons for the drop in pesticide use.

Favorable weather reduced insect problems, and the struggling agricultural economy forced farmers to cut expenses, including those for pesticide applications.

The department, however, also has embarked on an aggressive campaign to urge growers and others to move toward reduced-risk chemicals. The state department has provided more than $8 million for about 240 grants to support such projects.

Partly as a result, the state cited a dramatic decrease in 2001 in the use of chemicals suspected of causing cancer and polluting the air and water.

"I think many growers have realized that these are chemicals that can be problematic," Helliker said.

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