State of Science :: Commentaries
"Time to Deal with Pesticide Risks in California's Coastal Communities"
Author(s): Charles Benbrook, PhD
The Organic Center
Time to Deal with Pesticide Risks in California's Coastal Communities
A Santa Cruz jury recently returned a verdict that secures a brighter future for organic farming in California, and perhaps over time, if adopted as precedent, throughout the United States. The jury found that a commercial pesticide applicator, Western Farm Service, had an obligation to prevent toxic pesticides from drifting after application with wind and fog onto Jacobs Farm's organic crops in Wilder Ranch State Park. While Jacobs Farm was the clear winner in this case, press coverage of the trial and its conclusions missed the main significance of the jury's decision.
This case was about the Golden Rule. Federal pesticide law and regulations place considerable burden on pesticide applicators whether a farmer or a commercial company like WFS to prevent off target movement of applied pesticides. One of the goals in setting forth this clear-cut responsibility is to prevent "economic damage" to surrounding personal property, including crops on nearby farms (whether organic or conventional), trees and shrubs in a homeowner's yard, or other property, such as honey bees used as pollinators.
Applicators of pesticides need to assume responsibility when using toxic materials to prevent such damage. In this case, Western Farm Service was told that their use of organophosphate insecticides was unintentionally damaging the crops on Jacobs Farm by rendering them unmarketable. Whether intentional or not, if a pesticide applicator becomes aware that a particular use of a pesticide is damaging a neighbor's crop, the applicator must take steps to understand why and prevent future damage. In this case, the applicator failed this test, choosing instead to rely on a report from the Santa Cruz Agricultural Commissioner's office that concluded, wrongly, that the applicator was not legally responsible for contaminating Jacob's crops. The jury disagreed.
Western Farm Service hoped to end its responsibility for the chemicals it applied when it drove away from the fields they sprayed. This argument is both convenient and disingenuous. It ignores the clear responsibilities laid out in federal law and regulations to prevent off target movement that poses an economic risk to private property, and it's a bad way to do business. Western Farm Service knew that the fog was moving its chemicals off of the crops it treated, and it did nothing to prevent or address that movement onto nearby organic crops.
The company clearly did not meet its obligations in this case. The legal defense put forth by attorneys for Western Farm Service points to a hole in pesticide regulatory law and polices ignoring the well-known fact that coastal fog can carry pesticides off target and deposit them where they do not belong. This hole exposes both people and crops in coastal California to serious risk of harm from fog-borne pesticides. Both the County Agricultural Commissioner and the State Department of Pesticide Regulation now must work to fill this hole with meaningful regulations and label restrictions designed to minimize to the extent possible future re-occurrences of the damage scenario in this case.
The pesticides in question here are some of the most toxic known to man. If state and county government agencies are going to allow the ongoing use of organophosphates, regulators and applicators must find a way to do so that does not endanger the general public or contaminate neighboring organic crops. As established in this lawsuit, the State code governing lawful applications of pesticides must be changed to encompass off target movement caused by volatization and fog.
We know that growing certain fruits and vegetables including crops like Brussels sprouts, where the pesticides were applied in this case can be particularly challenging without the use of pesticides. We also know that organophosphates pose serious health risks to unborn fetuses and young children, and Jacobs Farms now has evidence that these chemicals travel significant distances in the fog and have settled in Wilder Ranch State Park and likely in neighborhoods on the west side of Santa Cruz. This case will likely trigger a series of legal maneuvers and attempts to change pesticide regulatory policy. The underlying question, however, is whether our laws and public policies should turn a blind eye to a recurrent problem, or confront and solve the problem head on. As the process unfolds, hopefully the general public, especially those living in coastal communities, will have a chance to weigh in on this central question.