Chief: Too ‘uncertain’ for farmers to change yet
By Matthew Weaver
SPOKANE — Farmers should track discussions between regulators on how they will measure the risks to salmon populations of chemicals that are up for registration, a federal environmental agency official says.
Will Stelle, Northwest regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries, spoke about changes to the pesticide registration process during the Tri-State Grain Growers Convention, including how agency scientists will analyze exposure and effects, calculate risks and handle uncertainty.
NOAA Fisheries and the Environmental Protection Agency — which registers pesticides, herbicides and fungicides — are refining existing biological opinions covering pesticides in the wake of several lawsuits.
“We’re being sued that we’re wrong, and EPA is being sued because they haven’t implemented our recommendations,” Stelle said.
According to Stelle, the National Academy of Sciences recommends first determining whether proposed use of the products to be registered would affect salmon habitats, with documentation of the reasons for the conclusion. If it might affect habitats, is it likely to have adverse effects? If so, how severe are those effects? Are they sufficiently serious to conclude use of the products would jeopardize the species?
When EPA and NOAA return to court later this year or early in 2014, they will have to determine how to produce a new biological opinion and whether NOAA and EPA will get a reprieve from the plaintiffs in the different litigation cases.
If they get a reprieve, there will likely be interim rules for the next three to five years while the new registration process is developed, Stelle said.
“There may be some additional terms and conditions that apply to the use of these materials or not,” Stelle said. “I wouldn’t necessarily make a change in your operations today, because I think it’s still too uncertain and unstable.”
Farmers at the meeting offered their perspective on the controversy.
“Even at this point, there’s so many uncertainties, it’s hard to focus on any problems we could address,” said Zach Christensen, a farmer in McMinnville, Ore.
Christensen prefers a broad umbrella for chemical use rules instead of specific requirements for each chemical.
“If you define it too closely, we cannot function without breaking a rule,” he said. “You’re never going to get all of the individual aspects written into the rules the way it affects an individual on the ground. A broader umbrella (provides) side rails that you can work within, rather than a prescription.”
Eric Maier, Ritzville, Wash., wheat farmer and co-chair of the National Association of Wheat Growers biotech joint committee with U.S. Wheat Associates, said the label is the law. Most farmers put on smaller amounts than the label requires, but the maximum allowable amount is what is considered.
“When we talk about legal ramifications and how the scientists are going to look at it, they are going to look at the maximum for that crop for that label,” he said. “It sounds like we cannot come in and say, ‘We don’t do that, we use this.’”
Maier, also state and national legislative chair for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, hopes to convey the complexity of the issue to farmers and determine a path forward for all agricultural stakeholders.
“It’s going to be a formidable task,” he said.