Trust the science and play by the rules.
It’s that simple.
The Environmental Protection Agency should remember these two principles as it thinks about a crop-protection technology that helps farmers keep bugs away from almonds, peanuts, apples, oranges, cotton, and more.
Activist groups have now targeted chlorpyrifos: Used around the world to control pests and one of the most widely used insecticides in the United States. They want the EPA to ban it. Their scheme requires regulators to ignore those guiding values: Trust the science and play by the rules.
I once used chlorpyrifos on my farm to fight corn rootworm. With the advent of GMO corn, my crops have gained a natural and effective ability to defeat these pests—and so I stopped using this insecticide years ago. Most crops, however, don’t come in GMO varieties. For many farmers, chlorpyrifos remains an excellent option for growing healthy plants and bringing nutritious food to market.
The EPA has decided to take a new look at this familiar product. That makes sense because a strong system of good regulations allows for periodic review.
The problem is that the agency may choose to move away from its tried-and-true methods of assessment, abandoning its longstanding commitments to trust the science and play by the rules.
The anti-farmer activists hype a single study that, they insist, raises questions about chlorpyrifos. They claim to have discovered a possible connection between the insecticide and neurological development in children.
I’m a farmer who wears plaid shirts and drives a tractor, not a Ph.D. holder who sports a white coat and works in a lab. So I won’t pretend to be something I’m not. Yet I’ve followed the debate with interest, and I’m impressed by what lots of scientists have said about the anti-chlorpyrifos study: The EPA should disregard it because although it meets many professional standards, it was designed for the purpose of general research rather than regulatory counsel.
For one thing, the study does not meet scientific standards required of pesticide registration studies because the underlying data are not in the public domain and have not even been given to the EPA. At an EPA meeting last month, Jeffrey Fisher of the Food and Drug Administration called this “flabbergasting.”
Moreover, in relying on a single, un-replicated university study in place of hundreds of traditional animal-toxicology tests that are central to assessments of health and safety, EPA would be taking a radical step away from 40 years of standard practices. Twice in the past, the EPA’s own Scientific Advisory Panels have strongly cautioned against taking this path.
I’ll try to sum it up in farmer-speak: Allowing this study to inform policy is like using a harvester to plant seeds. It’s the wrong tool for the job.
The stakes are high because this is about more than the fate of a single crop-protection product. It goes to the heart of how our government evaluates and applies data. As a reporter for Bloomberg BNA recently observed, the dispute over chlorpyrifos “could lead to a sea change.”
The risk is that our government would endorse the innovation-strangling “precautionary principle,” a flawed approach to regulations that elevates tiny doubts to positions of supreme importance. Broad acceptance of this half-baked concept has stifled agricultural technology in Europe, where farmers lack access to many of the perfectly safe crop protection tools that Americans and others take for granted.
In our country’s ongoing trade talks with the European Union, the EPA has argued against the spread of the “precautionary principle.” It should also resist the spread of this bad idea here at home, where we benefit from a robust regulatory system, rooted in sound science and governed by predictable rules that everyone understands.
We already err on the side of stringency. Developing a new crop-protection product costs an average of $286 million, according to Phillips McDougall, a consulting firm. Over the last five years, this costly figure has risen by more than 21 percent.
The EPA’s latest scientific panel will publish a report on chlorpyrifos by July 21 and the EPA will issue a final ruling by the end of the year.
Let’s hope the agency sticks to the basics—and trusts the science and plays by the rules.