Pesticides are used for a reason | Tracy Warner – North Central Washington newspaper

Pesticides are used for a reason

Friday, May 20, 2011

In an ideal world we could reason with the insects, discuss the many ramifications of their diet or their laying eggs in food reserved for genus homo. Or, we could fiddle with fungi, so rot we have not. Or plead with the weeds — leave room for our vegetables.

But, alas, they will respond only to chemical subterfuge or, as a last resort, terminal force. Pesticides, fungicides and herbicides of some sort have been sprayed on fields and orchards and the crops they support for 125 years or so and despite what you might hear, there is a reason for it other than corporate profit. Without some means to control the organisms that would share our food supply, we would produce far less food for human beings. Crops would rot or be riddled with insects, productivity would plunge by half for some crops. Some would fail completely. The human labor required to produce sufficient food would rise significantly. The land required for agriculture — to produce food for to sustain humanity — would grow greatly, because crop yields would drop, a lot. There would be big trouble for the environment, our wealth and living standards.

This is not supposition. We know this from experience, because that is how agriculture worked for most of human history, and why until fairly recently nearly everybody worked in the fields to produce enough food to survive. It is how famine and pestilence came into our vocabulary. But there is an ideology that holds that pesticides are always harmful, somehow, and must go away. Lawsuits, judicial rulings, manipulated bureaucracy, exploitation of heavy statutes, are the favored means to the end. What will happen to food for human beings when the means to control pests disappear, is not a consideration.

So there are lawsuits, and bureaucracy fumbling to respond, and it is now possible, if legal proceedings follow course, that some 380 pesticides already deemed safe by stringent federal tests could virtually be eliminated from use in every state save Alaska. This is the doomsday lawsuit that expands on similar tactics used in the Northwest. Environmental lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act force the Environmental Protection Agency to “consult” with the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service if pesticides “may” affect endangered salmon, and the agencies, under judicial order, produce documents called “biological opinions” that would prohibit spraying of the supposedly suspect chemicals within, in some cases, 1,000 feet of any water, canal or dry creek bed that might find its way to a place where salmon live.

West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers and chairman of the Washington State Horticultural Association, testified on the issue before Congress this month, and called it “a national crisis affecting growers and imperiling their crops across the country.” The pesticide-free buffers would affect 80 percent of farmland in the Wenatchee Valley. “I am deeply concerned that it will put my business and others in agriculture — in Washington state and beyond — into great jeopardy if implemented.”

Washington’s Agriculture Secretary Dan Newhouse testified that a 500-foot no-spray buffer would include 48 percent of Washington farmland. A 1,000-foot buffer would take 75 percent. This might be justified if pesticides under normal use had a measurable effect on salmon. The Department of Agriculture monitored water in the Wenatchee for six years and measured no pesticides over the minute concentrations the EPA says might affect salmon. Some wild salmon runs in the Wenatchee set records.

No matter. Federal agencies, prodded by judiciary and environmental lawsuits, must consult and write rules that threaten the use of chemicals, whether or not they affect endangered species in any demonstrable way, no matter their necessity for the production of food. What a strange regulatory system. What twisted priorities.

Tracy Warner’s column appears Tuesday through Friday. He can be reached at or 665-1163.

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