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  • A man spraying pesticides California’s Bold Plan to Transform Pest Management Systems is Long on Ambition and Light on Details

    By: Chuck Benbrook, HHRA ED By: Mark Lipson, HHRA Director of Policy and Regulatory Engagement We welcomed the invitation from California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation for members of the public to offer comments and guidance as the State begins to take concrete actions needed to achieve the goals set forth in the new report Sustainable Pest Management: A Roadmap for California. Reviewing the 94-page Roadmap report reminded us how many constituencies, forces, and factors are pushing and pulling farmers, pest managers, and government agencies in multiple directions that are rarely aligned. This Roadmap document describes a very different pest management future that will hopefully become the “de facto” way pests are managed on and off the farm by 2050. If successful by 2050, prevention-based biointensive Integrated Pest Management (bioIPM) will be the norm and there will be minimal if any use of high-risk “Priority Pesticides”. Some thirty-two years ago, DPR hired Chuck Benbrook to carry out a comprehensive evaluation of DPR’s programs and policies to assist in the integration of DPR into the newly-formed Cal-EPA. The resulting report, Challenge and Change: A Progressive Approach to Pesticide Regulation in California, came out in March of 1993. It provides dozens of recommendations intended to do many of the same things that the 2023 Roadmap report hopes to bring within reach. The fact that most pest management systems in California have become more, not less reliant on pesticides over the last 30 years suggests that DPR’s and CDFA’s efforts to achieve Roadmap goals are going to entail heavy lifting, mostly uphill. For this reason in HHRA’s comments, Mark and Chuck describe the nature and substantial scope of changes in laws and policy that will be required to track progress toward Roadmap goals and hopefully, someday, achieve them.

  • Europe is Growing Organic Production, Will the US Follow Suit?

    Advocates calling for change in US Ag Inc often struggle to point to successful models through which farming and food chains have evolved toward safer and more sustainable production systems. The surest way to largely eliminate the impacts of prenatal pesticide exposure on birth outcomes and children’s development – HHRA’s foundational goals – is converting US farmland to organic production. We are often asked how such change can come about. Convincing answers to this key and important question are few and far between in the US, but some key lessons are emerging from efforts in Europe to expand organic farming and food supply chains. The Cilento organic food bio-district in Italy was established in 2009 and is thought to be the first-ever in the world. Overcoming challenges faced by organic farmers in marketing their produce was a primary driver. Municipal actions expanded demand for organic food and ingredients via public food-purchasing programs. The lure of scenic rural landscapes and strong support from the agrotourism industry for organic food and farming created new market demand. Today, organic farming is thriving in the Cilento district, profit margins have expanded, and enhanced soil health is supporting higher yields at lower costs on many farms. An action by a city council led to the formation of the Södertälje organic food system in east-central Sweden, some 35 kilometers from Stockholm. The goal was to expand the supply of organic products for public food-procurement programs as a way to advance health and environmental quality. The municipality’s Diet Union developed new food products and recipes in the context of a “Diet for a clean Baltic” to promote health and reduce food waste. Restaurants and cafeterias began using smaller plates to cut down on waste, an intervention that has proven to be surprisingly effective. In south-eastern France the mad cow disease outbreak across Europe was the trigger of action leading to the Mouans-Sartoux organic food system. The initial focus was on supplying organic beef to school canteens, coupled with municipal government support for regional sustainable farm research and food education programs. A multi-faceted effort to provide organic food to children led to greater awareness of the diversity of benefits arising from organic farming. New efforts emerged to reach other vulnerable segments of the population with organic food (e.g. the elderly, pregnant women). These three region-based organic food systems in Europe are case studies in a just-published paper by Lilliana Stefanovic (2020), a scientist in the Department of Organic Food Quality and Food Culture at the University of Kessel in Germany. Imagine that. An academic department focused on organic food quality and culture. How long might it take for such a department to take hold at Iowa State University, in the heart of American farm country? The Stefanovic paper addresses how local organic food systems in Europe can contribute in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set forth by the United Nations, and especially SDG 12, “responsible consumption and production.” Her analysis concludes that local and place-based organic food and farming districts can make important contributions in transforming food and farming systems to promote human and animal health, and soil health and environmental quality. Two drivers played key roles in all three case studies: relatively short distances to population centers, and significant support for organic supply chains from public food-procurement programs, and especially those feeding children. And just a few months ago, the Italian government pledged to invest 3 billion euros (about $3 billion US) to convert at least 25% of the country’s farmland to organic systems by 2027. The funds will come from Common Agricultural Policy payments supported in part by a tax on pesticide sales. There are about 16.6 million acres of arable land in Italy. Reaching the 25% organic goal would entail the transition of around 2 million more acres to organic, given that a little over 15% of Italian farmland is already managed organically. If $3 billion in transition payments were spread over 2 million acres, average payments would be around $1,500 per acre. A multi-pronged effort in Italy is planned to simultaneously grow the supply of organic foods and demand for them. Investments will be made in the infrastructure needed to support profitable regional organic food supply chains, while increasing the supply of value-added, premium foods for sale throughout Italy, Europe, and for a few commodities (especially olive oil), the world. Such bold pledges and audacious goals have come and gone in many countries with little concrete and sustained change to show for the resources invested. But perhaps the time is right in Italy for acceleration in the transition to organic farming in light of the many scientific studies showing that organic farming can both slow global warming and render farms more resilient in the face of drought and flooding. What about here in the USA? The USDA has recently pledged to invest $300 million in a new Organic Transition Initiative. This program will provide new funding via many USDA-program channels to encourage the transition of farms to organic production. While a major increase in USDA funding dedicated to expanding organic production, $300 million over several years is a small share of the approximate $20 billion in annual federal spending on farm commodity and crop insurance programs. It is also instructive to compare the $3 billion investment in Italy to reach their goal of 25% of farmland in organic by 2027 to the $300 million investment just announced by USDA. The Italian program, if it actually happens, would provide about $1,500 per acre transitioned to organic. The USDA’s investment of $300 million translates into about $4.30 per acre across the approximate 70 million newly transitioned acres necessary for 25% of the US cropland base to be managed organically. Current disparity in public support for and investment in the transition to organic farming in the US versus Europe arises from vastly different public awareness of the benefits likely to stem from the transition of more farmland to organic production. Many public and private institutions […]

Dr. Melissa Perry and the Search for Answers that Led Her to The Heartland Study

May 4th, 2021

“The Heartland Study team is all about relationships, the mutual respect we have for each other and how much we care about the families of the Heartland and their long-term health.”

–Dr. Melissa Perry, Co-Principal Investigator of The Heartland Study

Growing up in a rural Vermont community beset by hardship, Dr. Melissa Perry initially envisioned a career as a psychologist — someone who could help heal people emotionally scarred by poverty, substance abuse and other common struggles.

But Perry, who is one of two Co-Principal Investigators heading HHRA’s flagship project The Heartland Study, was ultimately guided by a wise professor to follow a path into public health instead. She worked her way to her current position as Chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University (GWU), where she directs laboratory research exploring how chemicals in the environment affect human reproduction. She also teaches graduate students about the myriad ways that climate change is central to the future of public health.

Perry’s interest in chemical impacts on human health originated with her rural roots and the use of pesticides on the family farms  that made up her childhood home town. Her focus on pesticides grew over time as Perry followed the publication of high-impact papers by teams affiliated with the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Today, she is one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of environmental chemicals like pesticides on sperm counts, an important factor in decreasing fertility rates. 

The series of NCI papers in the 1990s and 2000s that inspired Perry reported research that benefited from novel methods of studying pesticide-cancer links among farmers and their families. For several pesticides, the papers showed that farmers who are more heavily exposed have higher rates of some rare cancers, compared to farmers rarely or only occasionally exposed to the same pesticides.

Perry was fascinated by the new tools the NCI was developing to track pesticide impacts on cancer in rural and farming communities, an interest that would shape her own scientific journey and career.

Her concern for the hazards of herbicide exposure mounted when Perry met Dr. Charles Benbrook at a Congressional staff briefing before the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. in 2011. Benbrook, who now serves as HHRA’s Executive Director, was there to share information on the latest USDA data on herbicide use. His presentation focused on the rapidly rising use of several herbicides in the Midwest, driven by the spread of weeds newly resistant to glyphosate, the chemical in Roundup herbicides. 

Perry was most concerned when she saw data pointing to likely, major increases in the use of 2,4-D and dicamba. Why? Because she had read papers published in the 1990s and 2000s reporting that these two old herbicides increase the risk of reproductive problems, birth defects, and some cancers. (Access papers on 2,4-D and dicamba in our bibliography.)

Benbrook’s presentation — and another by Dr. Dave Mortenson, a leading weed ecologist tracking the rapid spread of herbicide-resistant weeds — convinced Perry that herbicide-public health impacts needed more focused scrutiny.  After a series of calls and emails with Benbrook and another colleague, Dr. Phil Landrigan, Perry agreed to serve as the Co-Principal Investigator of The Heartland Study, alongside Co-PI Dr. Paul Winchester, a neonatologist working in the NICU at Franciscan Health hospital in Indianapolis. Dr. Landrigan also joined The Heartland Study family as the chair of our Science Advisory Board.

Why Public Health Science is So Challenging

It is extremely challenging for scientists to prove definitively that one particular chemical can cause one particular health problem , or disease in one particular person. Scientists must determine if connections identified between chemical use and a birth defect, or a disease such as cancer is a correlation or a causation: Does a particular chemical actually cause a specific birth defect or cancer?

Two indisputable facts driven home by COVID add multiple dimensions of complexity to the basic question: Does chemical X cause health problem Y? 

First, most diseases and reproductive problems are caused or made worse, at least in part, by other things impacting a person’s health. These “other things” that play a role in disease are often referred to as “comorbidities.” This term is one Americans have sadly heard many times as doctors explain why some people die from COVID and others hardly notice their infection.

Second, the ability of a person to fight off an infection, or quickly metabolize (break down) and excrete a pesticide they were exposed to, depends on the person’s age, health status, genetics, the air they breathe, the food they eat, and other chemicals or drugs they have recently been exposed to. 

Dr. Perry understands that the challenge is not just to prevent disease among healthy adults. That in fact is the relatively easy part. Protecting pregnant women, infants and children, the elderly, the immunocompromised, people with chronic illness, and those with heightened susceptibilities to disease because of their genetics is the far more complex, yet crucial, challenge facing public health scientists.

As a Co-PI for The Heartland Study team, Perry is setting out to help answer some of those hard questions on behalf of the 100 million people living and working in the Heartland and the region’s farmers who need to keep weeds in check on their fields year in and year out. 


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