It seemed almost like Gov. Gavin Newsom was channeling President Trump – in reverse – the other day, when his administration unilaterally ordered farmers in this, the nation’s most productive agricultural state, to stop using a pesticide often deployed on 60 different crops, including some of California’s most prolific.
For certain, it’s high time someone acted to take the controversial chemical chlorpyrifos out of use before it can harm anyone else. Because it will take two years to become final, Newsom’s action is not quite as immediate as some might like, but it’s the most California has ever done to get rid of this poison.
The product, made by DowDuPont Inc., whose component Dow Chemical Co. once produced the infamous chemical weapon napalm, is not your ordinary pest killer. It’s an organophosphate concoction chemically similar to and based upon the nerve gas Zyklon B used by Nazi Germany to execute six million Jews and eight million other victims in its notorious World War II era death camps.
The chemical can control a wide range of insects on crops as varied as grapes, almonds, oranges, walnuts, apples, pears and other fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in many parts of California.
But it also harms brain development, especially memory and quick thinking, in babies and small children, plus it has caused severe headaches and fainting among farm workers in fields where it has been sprayed and adjacent areas. Said Jared Blumenfeld, California Environmental Protection Agency chief, “This was first put on the market in 1965, so it’s been on the shelf a long time and is well past its sell-by date.”
No one knows how widely the pesticide is spread by winds and the force of sprayers.
The Newsom administration’s action, a move taken directly by the state Department of Pesticide Regulation and not by the governor himself, came after Hawaii banned the substance last year and New York legislators passed a law against it. But the two-year process needed for the order to become final will give President Trump’s administration time to resist the move, as federal authorities have done for more than a decade.
They do this despite an order from the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where an 11-member en banc panel ruled last August that chlorpyrifos must go.
Newsom, however, does not intend to leave farmers without a reliable pesticide. His May budget proposal included $5.7 million for additional research and technical assistance to get new products on the market.
Pesticide regulators will also help stage seminars to encourage use of biologically integrated pest management on more California farms. This effort could prove similar to what CalTrans did in the early 1990s, when the thousands of California pepper trees planted along freeways were imperiled by an insect called the pepper psyllid. The highway department imported millions of tiny insects from Peru that were known to feast on psyllids but do other harm, and today there is no more psyllid threat.
This demonstrates that while some farmers moan that “We’re trying to protect ourselves from deadly (plant) diseases and we keep losing tools,” creative natural solutions often exist. Farmers can also fight insects with botanically-sourced pesticides like cinnamon oil and garlic oil, and some have already switched to another family of insecticides called neonicitinoids. One problem with that family: It can threaten bees, even though it’s easier on people.
There are already signs that most farmers realize their era of using chlorpyrifos is nearly over. Its use is down about 50 percent in California since 2005, to just under 1 million pounds in 2016 and even less today, state figures show.
Farmers who refuse to see this handwriting on the wall, especially after Newsom’s move, could be left struggling to find a substitute when the actual ban arrives in 2021. They’re better off if they act now, getting ahead of the game and maybe even making hay by advertising their use of safer food-saving products.