PALM DESERT, Calif. -- American agriculture is due a pat on the back for getting a grip on pesticide misuse, says Stephen Johnson, assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Pesticides and Toxic Substances.

Misuse incidents were pretty much "out of control" in fiscal 2001, he told members of CropLife America and California Plant Health Association at their joint meeting at Palm Desert.

"In my history with the agency, I've never seen that kind of volume and extent of incidents, involving literally thousands of acres and multiple products, all over the United States.

"We were extremely concerned — and I know you were, too, because such incidents can raise a myriad of issues and can hurt your industry."

Fiscal 2002, which ended Sept. 30, saw a major turnaround in reported misuse cases, Johnson says.

"You put your concern into action, and because of what you did, agriculture got the situation in hand. We're still seeing a few misuse incidents, but there was a great improvement from one year to the next. We encourage you to continue enlisting everyone's help in doing everything possible to eliminate these incidents."

In a wide-ranging discussion of EPA programs and activities, Johnson said the agency "has been trying for a number of years to sort through" issues related to the Endangered Species Act and pesticides as they relate to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"There are some groups that have felt we're not going fast enough, and they've hit us with lawsuits."

One case, "in its infancy," involves 250 pesticides that are alleged by the plaintiffs to be detrimental to the California red-legged frog, which is on the endangered list. Preliminary efforts by the EPA are directed to determining how to proceed with the various issues involved.

The White House "held a recent meeting with various agencies and departments, Johnson said, to review the issue of endangered species and pesticides. "Things are shaping up for a collision course — and we don't want a train wreck. It's now being looked at in the highest levels of government, which is a significant breakthrough."

He said the EPA has met deadlines imposed by the Food Quality Protection Act for pesticide assessments, but that there "appears to be a conundrum" on how to deal with "chemicals that may not, in some instances, be pesticides."

For example, he noted that lindane is more widely used in shampoos regulated by the Food and Drug Administration than as a pesticide regulated by the EPA, "yet we have to evaluate potential exposure to people for all lindane uses."

"We don't want to be in a position of the EPA wagging the FDA's tail, but we haven't yet sorted out what's our job and what's the FDA's."

Johnson said the EPA is "looking very carefully" at the issue of biotechnology and trade.

"The real problem is that, from a pesticide standpoint, this is becoming fully a trade issue — whereas before it has been a science issue."

Within the Bush administration, he said, "a number of people are looking at what we should and can do; there was a meeting this week at the White House on this issue."

The EPA, Johnson said, is "very, very supportive of the products of biotechnology. They offer some wonderful advantages over other products, and afford unique opportunities."

Referring to the Starlink corn controversy, Johnson said the agency has been reassessing Bt products, particularly corn and cotton. "We jumped through some incredible hoops in terms of reviewing this technology, and we believe it and the National Academy of Sciences review have served us very well by demonstrating the effectiveness of good science."

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com.