Legislation introduced last month by U.S. Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) would allow American agricultural producers to request the use of pesticides already approved by foreign environmental agencies. Senate bill 1229, also known as the Pesticide Harmonization Act, would give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 60 days to review the scientific literature on those pesticides and either approve or deny the chemical's use in the United States.
Supporters of the bill say its economic impact on Montana's farmers and ranchers would be significant, saving them between 30 and 50 percent on their overhead costs at a time when they are suffering through one of the worst farm crises of the decade.
Opponents of the bill, however, say this legislation is unrealistic, costly, time-consuming and would potentially undermine the EPA's ability to evaluate the health effects of literally thousands of toxic chemicals flowing into this country.
According to Matt Raymond, press spokesman for Sen. Burns, American farmers often pay twice as much for pesticides as their Canadian counterparts just across the border, despite the fact that the Canadian version of the pesticide may be chemically similar-if not identical-to the ones sold in the U.S. (Currently, it is illegal for agriculture producers to purchase pesticides in Canada and transport them back into the United States.)
Gary Gingery, administrator of the Agricultural Sciences Division of the Montana Department of Agriculture, says that although he is unfamiliar with Sen. Burns' legislation, his agency supports the concept of pesticide harmonization, because it "levels the playing field between the United States and Canada." Not having read the bill, however, Gingery qualifies his endorsement of it, saying that it must guarantee that all EPA standards, such as toxicity and food residue levels, are maintained at current levels.
The measure's critics, however, are highly skeptical that the EPA would be able to maintain those standards, given the short amount of time allotted for the agency's review process.
"It's a lousy, lousy idea," says Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center, a state environmental lobbying group in Helena. "Sixty days is nowhere near enough time."
As Hedges points out, today there are more than 70,000 chemicals on the market in the U.S. alone, fewer than 1,000 of which have ever undergone testing or clinical evaluations for EPA approval. She says the suggestion that the EPA has either the time or the resources to devote to reviewing scientific literature on foreign pesticides within a 60-day window is absurd. She adds that in the case of many compounds approved by foreign governments, no reliable scientific literature exists for the EPA to review.
"The reason we have the Environmental Protection Agency is to keep our farmers and our food supply safe," says Hedges, "not to rely on foreign agencies to do that job."
EPA spokesman Kerrigan Clough says that although his agency is sensitive to the issue of pesticides harmonization with Canada and considers it a high priority, concerns such as pricing fall outside the EPA's jurisdiction. Although the EPA routinely approves pesticides on short notice in emergency situations, Clough says that for new pesticides never evaluated by the EPA, "I doubt if 60 days would give us enough time."
"Pesticides, especially in some developing countries, are extremely poorly regulated," says Bryony Schwann of Women's Voices for the Earth in Missoula. "You're asking the EPA to do an impossible task. They can't even get through all the chemicals already approved for the U.S. market."
In fact, the EPA has been struggling for years to gather adequate scientific data on the health effects of the more than 20,000-odd pesticide products currently approved for use in this country.
In 1970, the EPA took over the job of administering the laws that govern the production and use of pesticides from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which marked a fundamental shift in attitudes toward pesticide safety. Up until then, pesticides had only been tested for their acute toxicity levels. But in 1972, the federal government banned the use of DDT and other pesticides that remain in the environment after their initial use. That same year Congress mandated that all approved pesticides be re-tested for their long-term health effects on humans.
But by 1988, the EPA had compiled so little scientific data from the pesticide industry (virtually all pesticide testing required for EPA registration is done in-house by the industries themselves) that the agency asked Congress for a nine-year extension.
"Many of the pesticides in common use today have never been re-tested to evaluate their health effects according to the standard enacted in 1972," says Norma Grier of the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. She notes that of the 612 "families" of pesticide compounds, the EPA has compiled adequate scientific data on only 414 of them in 27 years.
"This bill is a really bad idea," says Grier, adding that it could open the floodgate for an unknown quantity of chemical compounds that have never touched the federal registration process.
But according to Burns' press release, "If the EPA finds significant reason in the scientific literature to deny the use of a pesticide in the U.S., it still has the ability to do so."
The Pesticide Harmonization Act, which is currently before the Senate Agriculture Committee, has no companion bill in the House of Representatives.