The early months of the Obama administration have been dominated by dealing with the recession, health care and Afghanistan, and by little action that affects agriculture. That trend may be changing and some of the subtle policy changes may have a significant negative effect on Southern agriculture.

Washington insiders contend the new administration’s proposed shifts in agriculture policy are being driven by a stated goal of making regulatory decision-making more transparent and to give the general public more opportunity for input in developing EPA policy.

Among the initiatives intended to shed more “sunshine” onto EPA’s regulatory process is the agency’s new policy, announced on Oct. 1, 2009, with no prior warning to the regulated community, that imposes a 30-day window of opportunity for public comment prior to agency approval of any new pesticide active ingredient or the first residential, outdoor or food use of currently registered products.

“The problem is that we don’t know how the EPA intends to interpret or use this public feedback,” says Susan Ferenc, president of the Chemical Producers and Distributors Association, an organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., that represents the interests of manufacturers, formulators, and distributors of off-patent agricultural use pesticides, as well as inert ingredients and adjuvants used with these products.

“How the agency responds to this information could adversely impact the entire agricultural industry, including the farming community, by causing lengthy delays in the ability for these products to be made available,” she adds.

In a second major announcement of an initiative aimed at bringing greater transparency to its regulation of pesticides, on Sept. 30, 2009, EPA trumpeted its plans to move forward with an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) requiring that the identities of hazardous inert ingredients, and possibly the identities of inerts not deemed hazardous, be made publicly available.

Most chemical products, including agricultural pesticides, contain a high percentage of inert ingredients. Many agricultural chemicals require the use of adjuvants to increase efficacy and/or to make these materials safer for the target crop.

The identification of these inert ingredients, the Obama administration contends, will better equip consumers of products produced using these materials to make more informed public health and environmental stewardship decisions.

In addition to these two new efforts aimed at facilitating greater public involvement in rulemaking, the Obama EPA has jumpstarted at least one long-standing initiative that has been slow to launch — namely, the Endocrine Disruption Screening Program (EDSP).

In April 2009, EPA published in the Federal Register its final policies and procedures guidance document that describes the manner in which EPA generally intends to conduct the initial screening of a select list of 67 chemicals for possible endocrine effects.

The EDSP was established under section 408(p) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) in response to arguments from the NGO and activist communities that humans, domestic animals, and fish and wildlife species have exhibited adverse health consequences from exposure to environmental chemicals that interact with their endocrine systems.

However, EPA emphasizes that “nothing in the approach for generating the initial list provides a basis to infer that any of the chemicals selected interfere with or are suspected to interfere with the endocrine systems of humans or other species.”

The program will now move forward with Tier 1 screening of an initial group of 67 pesticide chemicals, including 58 active and nine inert ingredients. The costs for testing each chemical are expected to exceed $1 million.

If all these 67 pesticide chemicals are tested, the program would cost $83 million just for this initial Tier 1 screening.

The entire $83 million would come from the companies that develop and sell these pesticide products.

Chemicals that will need to advance to Tier 2 testing will face an additional $3 million to $4 million each in testing costs. Needless to say, the cost of this program will ultimately filter down to the farmer using these chemicals.

Manufacturers of these pesticide chemicals have a significant amount of data already in hand that may be able to answer the questions the Tier 1 tests are designed to ask. The question is whether any of these materials have a negative impact, or more succinctly — what is the risk reward of using these inert ingredients.

“Our manufacturers are not trying to avoid all testing, rather they are trying to avoid unnecessary Tier 1 testing that will only tell them what they already know and to prevent the needless use of hundreds of laboratory animals in the process. They are prepared in many cases to move on to Tier 2 testing to determine whether there are real risks to endocrine systems associated with these chemicals,” Ferenc says.

Perhaps a more direct and costly impact to farmers comes from the EPA’s consideration of eventually putting all federal labels of agricultural pesticides on the Internet and taking this information off the can or jug of product. In fact, companies could be forced to take label information off the can or jug in order to comply with these guidelines.

The proposed change in policy is being fought tooth and nail by state agencies and by every agricultural group aware of the proposed change.

The EPA contends that putting this information on the Web improves their ability to mitigate risks, but the liability issues for applicators and farmers, and enforcement problems for state officials may be significant.

If implemented, at the bare minimum, this policy change would require farmers to seek, find, download and/or print the labels for dozens of agricultural chemicals they use in their every day farming operation. Where and how label information will be available on the Internet is not yet clear.

“To my knowledge the EPA virtually stands alone in promoting this move to Web-based labels. However, the EPA appears to be pushing hard to make it happen,” Ferenc says.

Two other issues are developing that will certainly impact pesticide product labeling. Most recently, at the Oct. 14-15, 2009, meeting of the Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee (PPDC) — a federal advisory committee comprised of representatives from the regulated community, public health agencies, state lead regulatory agencies, the federal government, and the NGO community — EPA raised its concerns relating to the use of the phrase “plant derived” appearing on the labeling of certain pesticide products.

While the phrase “plant derived” is not false in and of itself, EPA fears that its inclusion on the label could be misleading in that it might leave the user with the erroneous impression that somehow this product poses less risk than a “conventional,” synthetically based product.

EPA contends this misguided conception could lull users into applying larger amounts of the product than actually allowed on the label in accordance with the old adage that “one can never have too much of a good thing.”

A second labeling issue that has surfaced involves the use of the terms “professional” and “professional grade” in product names and advertising claims. In a recent statement, the agency disclosed it has become aware that certain pesticides are being sold and distributed under a brand name that includes the term “professional grade.”

The agency has also learned that advertising claims for these unnamed products include phrases such as “professional grade results.” EPA explains that the use of the term “professional grade” implies a falsehood that pesticides are classified by grade (which they are not) and therefore constitutes a false or misleading comparison to other pesticides. EPA states, “‘Professional Grade’ implies or could well imply that the products are more efficacious than competitors’ products.”

EPA adds that the use of the word “professional” is misleading in that it does not explain which professionals are being referenced.

Again, the cost of changing literally thousands of pieces of promotional materials would ultimately filter back to the farmer using these products. In today’s reality of high input risks and low profit margins, that’s a luxury most farmers can’t afford.

Whether any or all these proposed changes occur remain to be seen. Whether these changes will help or hurt farmers is much clearer.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com