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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pesticide 2-Way

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with Michael Jacobson, author and executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest about the recent pledge from the White House to encourage less pesticide use. The call is a major reversal of government policy towards pesticides. Jacobson says the government's stance is a step in the right direction, but specific actions need to be taken for any real change to occur.


CURWOOD: The Clinton Administration has recently said it wants American farmers to reduce their use of pesticides. The announcement came as the National Academy of Sciences released its long-awaited study showing that pesticide residues in food may be especially dangerous to children. The Administration's call reverses long-standing government policies of promoting pesticides.

JACOBSON: I think this is a watershed event. For decades the Department of Agriculture and EPA have basically said, hey, there is no problem, maybe wash your fruit before you eat it, but things are just fine. This says that the government has real concerns.

CURWOOD: Michael Jacobson is executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington and author of Safe Food: Eating Wisely in a Risky World. I asked him the steps he thinks the government should take to implement the policy change, and what consumers should do.

JACOBSON: Well, nothing really's going to happen from the government for quite a while, and so I think consumers need to do three things. One is, if they buy regular produce at the grocery store, they should wash it carefully or they should peel it if they want to make sure they're getting off the surface pesticides. If they can get organically grown produce, they should. Organically grown produce is better for the consumer and it's better for the environment. Consumers with kids ought to be extra careful. The NAS report highlights that children are at greater risk. A, they're exposed to these chemicals for a longer time than other people, and secondly their bodies are not yet fully developed so these active chemical agents might interact with the growing body and cause harm. So children are the ideal ones to protect, but we should all be protecting ourselves.

CURWOOD: What do you think the impact of this announcement will be on farmers, both those who are conventional and those who use organic methods?

JACOBSON: I think organic farmers will take this as a vote of confidence and down the road look forward to greater assistance from the Federal government. Traditional farmers I think may be a little nervous, because they'll be faced with efforts to cut down on their pesticide usage, something that they've developed a habit for. They've gotta break that habit. Hopefully the government will assist them in cutting down on the use of pesticides while still maintaining yields.

CURWOOD: Okay, the government's made this announcement - what do you think it should do next?

JACOBSON: Different agencies need to do different things. The Environmental Protection Agency needs to require much better testing and it needs to evaluate those tests in a much more conservative way. Then it has to set stricter limits on the levels of pesticides permitted in foods. The Food and Drug Administration needs to do a lot more sampling of foods, especially of foods that kids eat large quantities of - milk, apples, are a couple of examples. Congress needs to take action. It needs to phase out cancer-causing pesticides. It needs to fund fully programs to support organic and sustainable agriculture, perhaps by applying a tax to pesticides and fertilizer to generate that money. Congress needs to change the price support programs, to encourage farmers to rotate crops and to use pesticides and fertilizer much less. The Department of Agriculture buys a lot of food for school lunch programs and other programs. It ought to be sending signals to the marketplace that it will give top priority for foods grown organically or with no detectable levels of pesticides. USDA also has to mount very widespread programs and encourage state Departments of Agriculture to help farmers grow food with much less use of pesticides. The three government agencies - FDA, EPA and USDA - issued a nice statement but they haven't done anything concrete and what we need to see now is concrete action.

CURWOOD: Michael Jacobson is executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, DC.



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