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News from the National Academies
Date: July 18, 2000
Contacts: Bill Kearney, Media Relations Associate
Kathi McMullin, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail news@nas.edu

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Need Still Exists for Chemical Pesticides While Alternatives Are Sought

WASHINGTON -- No justification currently exists for completely abandoning chemical pesticides, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. However, more government-sponsored research and incentives are needed to spur the development and use of alternative pesticides or new chemical pesticides that pose fewer risks to humans and the environment, and that are not too costly to use.

"Chemical pesticides should remain part of a larger toolbox of diverse pest-management tactics in the foreseeable future," said May Berenbaum, professor of entomology, University of Illinois, Urbana, who chaired the committee that wrote the report. "No single pest-management strategy will work in all ecosystems, so chemicals need to be part of an ecologically based framework that can safely increase crop yields."

The committee concluded that chemical pesticides will continue to play a significant role in U.S. agriculture for at least the next decade, not only because the environmental compatibility of pesticides is increasing, but also because effective and affordable alternatives are not universally available.

Although plants that are genetically modified to resist pests probably are safer for the environment than traditional synthetic pesticides, questions remain about how fast pests evolve resistance to them, how they affect nontarget species, and how their pest-resistant genes may be transferred to weedy relatives. Until more is known about the ecological impact of transgenic plants, a need will remain for chemical pesticides, especially in the effort to manage and slow pest resistance, the committee said. By using multiple pest-control tactics, instead of relying on a single method, farmers will face limited rates of pest adaptation to pesticides.

The reluctance of some countries to accept imported products derived from genetically modified foods also means that the United States will have to maintain a reliance on chemical pesticides, the report says. Moreover, recent reductions in trade barriers increase the chances that nonnative pests will find their way onto American soil. New, environmentally compatible chemical pesticides will be needed to complement a variety of prevention strategies to combat such pests.

Scientific advances and tougher regulations have driven some of the riskiest chemical pesticides from the marketplace, the report says. But finding alternatives has proved difficult for some
farmers, especially those who harvest so-called "minor crops" -- which include most fruits and vegetables and grow on fewer acres than major crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat. Historically, pesticide manufacturers have focused on developing safer products for use on major crops, since treating vast numbers of acres offers a greater promise of profits. To overcome this disincentive to developing safer pesticides for minor crops, the report calls for the government to invest in pest-management research that is not currently -- and for the most part never has been -- undertaken by private industry.

In particular, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should increase the amount of money it directs toward competitive grants to encourage basic research in pest management, the committee said. New discoveries also can be accelerated by broadening the scope of grant programs at federal agencies other than USDA. Biological, biochemical, and chemical research that can be applied to ecologically based pest management is consistent with the funding missions of several agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation (NSF), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the report notes.

NSF and EPA should fund research aimed at improving understanding of pest behavior on actual farms, which could provide farmers with the missing information they need to implement environmentally friendly pest-management practices. For example, if farmers knew ahead of time which plants would be vulnerable to which pests that season, they could rotate their crops accordingly without resorting to chemical pesticides. Researchers also should take advantage of satellite technology to conduct long-term, large-scale "on-farm" studies.

The federal government should foster innovation in the pest-management business and speed up the approval process for new pesticides, the report says. The U.S. Department of Commerce's Advanced Technology Program, for example, which typically awards grants to companies involved in cutting-edge research and development that has commercial potential, should be encouraged to fund new efforts to develop safer pesticides. And if EPA can do so without jeopardizing human health and the environment, it should register new biopesticides within six months, so small companies reap financial benefits sooner and farmers have earlier access to new products. USDA should continue to develop crop insurance programs for farmers who adopt environmentally sound pest-management practices.

The organic food market is growing at a rate of 20 percent each year in the United States, but only 0.1 percent of agricultural research in this country is devoted to organic farming practices. Government research focused on providing alternatives to chemical pesticides will be critical for farmers hoping to compete in this market, the report says.

While some incentives are needed to bolster the discovery of new and safer pesticides, disincentives are needed to discourage reliance on chemical pest-control strategies that are deemed riskier, the report says. For example, higher-risk pesticide practices could be subject to special taxes and fees, payment of government entitlements could be made on the condition that farmers meet certain criteria of environmental stewardship, and regulations designed to protect workers could be more strictly enforced.

Agricultural worker safety remains a serious concern, particularly for people working with minor crops, where exposure to pesticides is more likely. In 1992 EPA reinforced its Worker Protection Standards with stricter rules for the safety of workers who handle or come in contact with pesticides. But without more detailed, objective information on compliance, there is reasonable doubt as to whether these standards are accomplishing their goal, the report says. It calls for funding to conduct an unbiased, sophisticated study of worker safety and compliance with the standards.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides scientific and technical advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of The Future Role of Pesticides in U.S. Agriculture for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources
and
Commission on Life Sciences

Committee on the Future Role of Pesticides in U.S. Agriculture

May R. Berenbaum* (chair)
Professor and Head
Department of Entomology
University of Illinois
Urbana

Mark Brusseau
Professor of Subsurface Hydrology and Environmental Chemistry
Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental Science
University of Arizona
Tucson

Joseph DiPietro
Dean and Professor of Veterinary Parasitology
College of Veterinary Medicine
University of Florida
Gainesville

Robert M. Goodman
Professor
Department of Plant Pathology
University of Wisconsin
Madison

Fred Gould
Professor
Department of Entomology
North Carolina State University
Raleigh

Jeffrey Gunsolus
Professor of Research and Extension
Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics
University of Minnesota
St. Paul

Bruce Hammock*
Professor of Entomology and Environmental Toxicology
Department of Entomology
University of California
Davis

Rolf Hartung
Professor Emeritus of Environmental Toxicology
Department of Environmental Health Sciences
University of Michigan School of Public Health (retired)
Ann Arbor

Pamela Marrone
President and Chief Executive Officer
AgraQuest Inc.
Davis, Calif.

Bruce Maxwell
Professor of Weed Agroecology
Department of Plant, Soil, and Environmental Sciences
Montana State University
Bozeman

Kenneth Raffa
Professor
Department of Entomology
University of Wisconsin
Madison

John Ryals
President
Paradigm Genetics Inc.
Cary, N.C.

James Seiber+
Professor of Environmental Sciences
Department of Environmental Resource Sciences
University of Nevada
Reno

Dale Shaner
Director of Ag Biotech
American Cyanamid
Princeton, N.J.

David Zilberman
Professor and Chair
Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics
University of California
Berkeley

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Kim Waddell
Project Director

* Member, National Academy of Sciences
+ Resigned December 1998