USDA stops tracking chemicals

The Bush administration’s crackdown on the public’s right to know continues: Officials at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have quietly closed down the only federal program that tracks the types and quantities of chemical pesticides and fertilizers being used by America’s farmers.

Since 1990, the USDA’s statistical wing has published annual surveys detailing the chemicals that farmers spray on our food. The reports are a vital source of information for government regulators, environmental activists and industry analysts - but in recent years, agency chiefs have begun to dismantle the program. Last year, officials ordered staff to gather chemical-usage data only for cotton and apple crops; this year, they’ve gone further still, saying they can no longer afford the program’s $8 million price-tag and won’t be collecting any data whatsoever for the 2008 growing season.

The decision to scrap the program has caused panic among researchers who rely on the data. They say there’s simply no alternative to the federal reports: Private companies that collect similar information charge up to $500,000 a year for their services, putting them out of reach of most government agencies and all academic or non-profit researchers. Federal government officials say it’ll now be all but impossible for them to monitor agricultural pollutants in our air, soil, and water. The EPA’s pesticide office has already sent an anguished letter begging the USDA to reconsider its decision; officials at the US Geological Survey (USGS), meanwhile, say they’ll now have to use out-of-date figures to try to trace the sources of water pollution.

The absence of proper data will also impact on the ability of journalists, environmental activists, and the general public to push for tighter controls on pesticide use; after all, it’s hard to demand limits on pollutants if you don’t know they’re there. “Without [the USDA] data, all the policy issues and debates that have been going on for the last 15 or 20 years over pesticide use would be based largely on speculation,” says Charles Benbrook, chief scientist for the non-profit Organic Group.

Lawmakers on the Senate’s Appropriations Committee are working to reinstate the chemical monitoring program; earlier this year they ordered agency officials to reverse their decision and warned them not to cancel any other data-gathering activities without first informing Congress. Still, that ticking-off won’t carry much weight unless both the Senate and the House pass it into law - and that could be a long process. For now, at least, the USDA looks likely to keep its head firmly buried in the sand.

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