The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will resume a portion of its survey of the use of farm chemicals that was cut during the Bush administration. The surveys historically have provided crucial publicly available data on the amount and types of pesticides used on a variety of crops and livestock operations nationwide.
The data have been used by states and federal agencies for scientific research and policy planning and implementation, including the administration of clean water programs and chemical risk assessments. The data also have been used by the crop chemical industry to gather usage data and by environmentalists, farmers, and many others.
The Agricultural Chemical Usage Reports, collected by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) since 1990, are the only publicly available data on national pesticide use. The USDA had been steadily dismantling the program, first by reducing the frequency of the chemical use surveys, then reducing the number of crops covered, until finally cutting the program entirely in April 2007 to save an estimated $8 million annually.
A coalition of 44 environmental, sustainable farming, and health advocacy organizations had urged the previous USDA secretary to reverse the decision.
The USDA announced on Tuesday the resumption of its data collection activities for fruit crops. The Obama administration has included funding for a full, reinstated program in its 2010 budget.
The policy reversal is a welcome change and a partial restoration of the public’s right to know about the use of poisons near their homes, schools, watersheds, and on their food. However, NASS should go much further with its data collection, emulating California's system for tracking pesticide use in the state. In California, all agricultural pesticide use must be reported monthly to county agricultural commissioners, who report the data to the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation.
Obama's USDA also announced this month that the agency will conduct the first survey of organic agriculture. The results of this survey will influence farm policy decisions, including funding allocations and community development activities.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack described the survey as "an opportunity for organic producers to share their voices and help ensure the continued growth and sustainability of organic farming in the United States."
(Brian Turnbaugh 05/22/09)