The Pesticide Tango: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Feb 23, 2022

By Kyle Kunkler, ASA Director of Government Affairs for Regulatory Issues

Government affairs is not a science as much as an art—a dance if you will. There are standard tools and tactics at our disposal, but in deciding which approach may be best, there are also countless factors to consider: policymaker and stakeholder personalities, geographical discrepancies, jurisdictional challenges, electoral outcomes, and so forth. It can quickly become an intricate dance that defies formula. Such has become the complex pesticide tango agricultural groups are dancing with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In that dance that is pesticide policy, soybean growers—like most regulated entities—expect certain things from EPA. Predictability and timeliness; risk and science-based decisions (as the law requires); and, the opportunity to provide feedback to the policy-making process. We fully expect every decision may not go our way, but if these criteria are met, the steps allow for a tame, elegant waltz with our regulatory dance partner.

If only reality were so smooth and predictable.

Unfortunately, the same factors that can make government affairs extremely complex also affect regulatory actions. Unpredictable and improper steps from regulators quickly destabilize our charming waltz into a chaotic contortion vaguely resembling some sort of salsa-highland fling hybrid. This veer from predictability by EPA has necessitated an equally improvisational response.

In fairness, EPA is also reacting to external factors. Court rulings, public pressures, opinionated lawmakers. What is frustrating, however, is the way the agency chooses to react to these circumstances. For example, EPA takes an incredibly conservative approach for pesticide Endangered Species Act (ESA) assessments, presumably in response to court rulings and litigation anxieties. As a result, EPA uses very inappropriate assumptions, such as pesticide application rates many times greater than actual usage data reflects—despite the agency having a legal obligation to use the “best available scientific and commercial data.” In response to this misstep, ASA and other agricultural stakeholders have publicly and repeatedly blasted this approach that vastly inflates the number of species found likely to be adversely affected by pesticides with press and lawmakers. Furthermore, EPA’s approach delays regulatory timeframes and may require greater restrictions than if the agency used better data.

There are numerous other examples. EPA inexplicably responded to a court order by revoking all food tolerances for chlorpyrifos. Concerningly, EPA’s career scientists previously said uses for soybeans and 10 other crops are not a health risk, plus the court gave EPA the flexibility to preserve low-risk uses. In reply, ASA led a very public, formal coalition objection, drawing 82 groups to participate and highlighting both how growers would be harmed and the numerous process violations committed by the agency. EPA is obligated by law to respond to the objections raised.

The situation, however, is not hopeless. We continue to catch glimpses of our dance partner’s desire for stability and predictability. For example, EPA has publicly expressed interest in improving its ESA process, including using better data. From ASA’s perspective, we simply need to continue working with the agency to address the challenges that have arisen in recent years, and as much as possible, tamp down external distractions that might take us off step.