Sound science can protect agriculture and endangered species

In a recent address at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), President Obama promised to shield science from political maneuvering and ideological agendas that too often undermine the integrity of the scientific process and taint public policy. “In all the sciences we have to make sure that we are supporting the idea that they aren’t subject to politics; they are not skewed by an agenda … that we make sure we go where the evidence leads us.” 

Just one day after Obama’s remarks there, the NAS released a new report showcasing a scientific and regulatory train wreck in U.S. agriculture that affects federal regulation of crop protection products essential to American food production. The contentious issue has captured the attention of the House Agriculture and House Natural Resources Committees. 

Multiple government agencies, the agricultural community and environmentalists are ensnared in a turf war over the Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of crop protection products, including insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. A scientifically sound approach to the regulation much like the one endorsed by Obama is needed. Unfortunately, the Washington infighting has created a redundant and costly process that fails to protect endangered species and threatens to disrupt nationwide food production of everything from avocados to zucchini. Political agendas should not trump sound science.

The current system is broken and desperately needs repair. One regulatory agency is being asked to consult with another set of regulators so it can continue regulating a product that is already regulated. Americans are poorly served when EPA regulates crop protection products under one environmental statute, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide & Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), and two other agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, review EPA’s work under another statute with different requirements and mandates. The Department of Redundancy is only funny on late night television. It fails to deliver either good public policy or sound science.

The NAS was charged with refereeing this inter-agency squabble and providing analysis of the regulatory process. Last week, NAS released its long-anticipated report, “Assessing Risks to Endangered and Threatened Species from Pesticides.”

NAS clearly understood the president’s message. The report affirmed the integrity of EPA’s science-based registration process, and found that multiple agencies conducting parallel risk assessments using the same information was duplicative and ineffective. A more streamlined assessment process using the expertise of the agencies incorporating the NAS recommendations would provide for a more scientifically sound outcome. EPA’s regulatory process adequately protects endangered species while enabling American farmers to provide healthy, nutritious fruits and vegetables.

The NAS conclusions were long-awaited but should not be surprising. They found that “the completion of risk assessments for pesticides has been impeded by a lack of communication and coordination among the agencies involved in the process.”

Momentum is growing for revising the current system to protect both endangered species and our nation’s agriculture, as the NAS report came on the heels of a federal district court ruling dismissing the “Mega” lawsuit filed against EPA by the Center for Biological Diversity. The plaintiffs sought to restrict the use of valuable crop protection and public health products, alleging that the EPA’s existing and long-standing registration of more than 380 chemicals might negatively impact 214 species in 49 states. The outcome re-affirmed EPA’s pesticide registration process under FIFRA, and its ability to thoroughly consider and protect endangered species.

It is encouraging that a scientific and legal consensus in favor of sound science over bureaucratic and duplicative red tape has emerged. Judges and scientists agree that the protection of endangered species depends on the latest scientific evidence and a common scientific approach.

In his NAS speech, Obama hailed science for its “fidelity to facts and truth and a willingness to follow where the evidence leads.” The president’s approach promises an end to the quagmire of pesticide regulation. Using sound scientific evidence in an apolitical manner will improve crop protection products and their uses, encouraging the continued success of the American farmer while ensuring that all wildlife species and their habitats remain safe.

Vroom is president and CEO of CropLife America, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association that represents the companies that develop, manufacture, formulate and distribute crop protection chemicals and plant science solutions for agriculture and pest management in the United States.

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