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Okay… this is hard for me to contemplate. But if actions speak to the truth, the American Farm Bureau Federation cares more about cherries than children's health. In what is a truly shake-the-head, sad moment, the AFBF in October filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency saying the Fed’s final ruling banning the pesticide chlorpyrifos was bungled — and should be reversed. This, despite the fact that courts essentially settled the issue.

For those who don't know, chlorpyrifos is used by cherry, sugar beet, soybean and other farmers to control insects which reduce crop yield. The EPA cut a deal with Dow Chemical in 1999 that banned chlorpyrifos from nearly all “residential” use because the pesticide is known to damage the developing brains of children. But there were a bunch of loopholes, including indoor and outdoor areas, where children will not be exposed.

And EPA allowed Big Ag to continue to manufacture pesticides containing chlorpyrifos for agricultural use. And oh have farmers sprayed and sprayed and sprayed…so much over the years that chlorpyrifos residue is found on our food, in our drinking water, in our air and in our bodies.

In 2007, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others filed a petition with the EPA, asking chlorpyrifos to be deregistered. The petition noted:

“...the Agency cherry picked the data, ignoring robust, peer-reviewed data in favor of weak, industry-sponsored data to determine that chlorpyrifos could be re-registered and food tolerances be retained. EPA’s re-registration and tolerance reassessment decision is not scientifically defensible because it is based on a strained and biased interpretation of an incomplete data set.” 

Big Ag's response was to delay, delay, delay and hope judicial review and/or EPA review would somehow make the problem go away. And for a while, that worked. In 2017, the Trump administration’s EPA finally denied the 2007 petition, and then, in 2019, denied objections to the denial. 

But by this time the courts, which for the most part stayed out of the EPA decision-making process, had seen enough. This past April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit gave EPA 60 days to either ban chlorpyrifos or modify chlorpyrifos tolerances to levels where the EPA “has determined that there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result from aggregate exposure to the pesticide chemical residue, including all anticipated dietary exposures for which there is reliable information including for infants and children:

“...the EPA has spent more than a decade assembling a record of chlorpyrifos’s ill effects and has repeatedly determined, based on that record, that it cannot conclude, to the statutorily required standard of reasonable certainty, that the present tolerances are causing no harm. Yet, rather than ban the pesticide or reduce the tolerances to levels that the EPA can find are reasonably certain to cause no harm, the EPA has sought to evade, through one delaying tactic after another, its plain statutory duties.” 

Faced with the 60-day deadline, the EPA threw up the white flag. But the AFBF continues to defend the indefensible. For my money I'd much rather pay a few more cents a pint for my cherries than to see even one more child harmed. And if you asked any parent in this country, they'd agree. But the AFBF seeks further delay by playing up the dissenting opinion of circuit judge Jay S. Bybee who wrote by giving EPA 60 days “the majority has likely predetermined EPA's opinion.”

It's obvious what AFBF is doing. In its petition, the AFBF tries to muddy the waters by saying there are newer epidemiological studies (!) out there, which could find a link between chlorpyrifos and  “alleged neurodevelopmental effects.”  And besides “even if a hazard exists and it presents a risk, EPA’s own experts believe that risk can be mitigated using existing controls.” 

Just defy the courts EPA and everything will be oh so alright!  Well, it ain't alright.  And AFBF should take a deep look inside itself and realize money ain't everything.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Investigate Midwest covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect Investigate Midwest. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.