One of the most widely used insecticides in America is the subject of a regulatory battle. Earlier this year the Trump administration chose not to move ahead with efforts to ban chlorpyrifos, first put in place by the Obama administration. Now, California is in the process of tightening its own regulations of the insecticide, and that has some farmers searching for answers.
David Doll is testing soil for a project on cover crops, which could help limit the use of some pesticides by increasing natural predators.
“We’re actually auguring down to the depth that we’re trying to target,” says Doll, a UCANR farm advisor based out of Merced. “Right now we are about seven and a half feet into the earth.”
For years farmers have used chlorpyrifos to manage insects like ants and moths that feed on crops. While the Trump Administration has given farmers the green light to keep using it, California has made its own efforts to scrutinize the pesticides use. That’s because while it's effective on killing a broad range of pests it can also have unintended effects and can be harmful to humans.
“It’s a little bit like a shotgun,” says Doll. “It can take out a wide variety of insect species from a process that's similar to them all.”
If the pesticide’s use is limited Doll says he’s most concerned about invasive species like the brown marmorated stink bug that made its way to California four years ago. The pest feeds on fruit. Right now farmers use chlorpyrifos to get rid of it, but Doll says if it goes away or its use is limited some growers dealing with the pest are at a loss of how to manage it.
“If this were to move into an orchard it would be on the farmer to identify what methods he could use to mitigate the loss of fruit,” says Doll. “Maybe there’s just nothing they can do. That’ll lead to a shift into the type of crop they’ll farm in order to maintain profitability of the land they’re working.”
Chlorpyrifos came onto the market in 1965 and about 1 million pounds are applied onto crops yearly in California. The EPA already banned most of its use on home gardens because it’s proven to be toxic to the nervous system and in some cases it could be deadly. Dow Chemical makes the product and says if it's used properly it's safe. Now the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, or CDPR, is working on a set of restrictions for farmers who use it. There are soft restrictions already in place that include not using it if wind speeds are above three miles per hour and that growers should not use it within 500 feet of sensitive sites like schools.
“This pesticide really is your granddaddy’s pesticide,” says Charlotte Fadipe with CDPR. “It has a nasty effect on humans that we don’t like to see, and so if we’re going to keep using it don’t be surprised if we have more and more restrictions. The smartest thing really is to try and find some other alternative for it.”
She says restrictions could become even tighter in 2018 after a panel of scientists reevaluate the state's rules on the pesticide. For Kern County UC Farm Advisor David Haviland tighter restrictions would force the agricultural world to figure out alternatives.
“There’s a few cases where researchers have worked really hard for many years to come up with green methods for managing pests, says Haviland. “There are some cases where those just haven’t been delivered yet and in those cases it would be a big deal if we lose chlorpyrifos.”
In some cases farmers are using chlorpyrifos to help beneficial insects eradicate bad ones. Haviland says one example involves ants that kill insects that farmers hope will eat aphids that destroy their crops.
“They protect their little sugar producing insects,” says Haviland. “In this case chlorpyrifos is actually used to control the ants and it's the only option available to control ants. By controlling ants the beneficial insects can do their job to control the aphids.”
Haviland says if chlorpyrifos goes away or its use is severely limited it’ll take years to develop an alternative for certain pests – if at all.
But not everyone is using pesticides like chlorpyrifos. And if the state does move forward to tighten its uses farms may start to look more like the orchards on Bryce Loewen’s organic farm. He and his crew are sorting through pluots they’ve sun-dried on his 80 acre farm near Parlier.
Loewen doesn’t use chlorpyrifos on the 150 plus crops he grows, but he’s had to find other ways to mitigate pests. Unlike conventional farming with weedless rows, his farm looks a bit wilder with tall weeds throughout the farm.
“We’re trying to work within the constructs of what nature has provided, so trying to figure out a way to make that effective for us and not a detriment is the whole puzzle,” says Loewen.
His farm is close to other conventional farms that do use pesticides. Recently he says his neighbors started following his example by using natural methods like pheromones to distract pests from coming into orchards. He also doesn’t use pesticides because he wants to preserve natural predators and pollinators on his farm.
“Maintaining that feral population of honeybees and butterflies for pollination purposes is one really good reason not to use those harsh chemicals,” says Loewen. “There’s other insects that are really beneficial to us; praying mantises, ladybugs.”
Loewen says he hopes more growers explore natural alternatives so the use of pesticides like chlorpyrifos aren’t the first option for farmers.