Rural legislators lose fight on pesticide ban

Diane Rey, MarylandReporter.com

Rural delegates fought a losing battle on the House floor Thursday against banning a pesticide that has been linked to autism, ADHD and childhood cancers.

Lawmakers from the state’s rural areas said banning the commonly-used pesticide would be a blow to farmers who rely on it to grow their crops and put them at a competitive disadvantage.

HB275, sponsored by Del. Dana Stein, D-Baltimore Co., and its companion bill in the Senate, SB270, prohibit the use of chlorpyrifos (chlor-pyr.-i-fos), insecticides that contains it, or seeds that have been treated with chlorpyrifos beginning January 1, 2020, or later with a waiver from the Maryland Department of Agriculture for its use until December 31, 2022.

Similar bills came before the legislature in 2018 but died in committee. The amendment establishing waivers would allow the agriculture department to grant them if it is determined no other alternative exists.

Farmers say ban would hurt

The House rejected an amendment that a rural lawmaker said could diminish some of the hardship a ban would place on farmers, especially sweet corn growers.

Del. Jeff Ghrist, R-Caroline, introduced an amendment during the House floor debate that would allow farmers to continue to use seed treated with the chemical. It failed by a vote of 45 to 88.

“Without this amendment, it will have a very meaningful impact on our farmers back home,” he said.

He said the bill particularly affects farmers who grow sweet corn for the canning industry. The pesticide is also used in producing canned green beans, lima beans and peas and is sprayed on fruit trees in the dormant season to treat for wood-boring pests.

Ghrist argued that exposure to the chemical is limited when mixed with seeds in granular form and packaged, as it goes from the package into a planter with a lid and directly into the ground.

“At no time is this seed exposed to anyone,” he said.

He said the pesticide breaks down in about 10 days and does not affect drinking water. “These treated seeds are not harmful to people or the environment,” he said.

He likened the pesticide debate to that on oyster sanctuaries. The House passedHB298, which some lawmakers argue will hurt watermen, also on Thursday, by a vote of 98 to 40.

“We’re defending our families back home who are putting food on the table. We’ve never had to defend biotech, aerospace or cyber security, but we constantly have to defend agriculture and the seafood industry.”

Seed use causes concern with dust spreading

Stein, vice chair of the Environment and Transportation Committee, disagreed that the chemical isn’t dangerous. He said planting the seeds spreads dust that poses a threat to people downwind.

“The EPA said there are no safe application methods or exposure,” he said.

According to the Maryland Pesticide Network (MPN), chlorpyrifos is “a toxic nerve agent pesticide proven to cause brain damage in children, contaminate waterways and harm wildlife.”

MPN is a grassroots coalition of organizations aimed at protecting the public and the environment from toxic pesticides and promoting healthy alternatives, according to its website. Its membership includes organizations representing health care providers, consumers, environmental interests, parents, labor, agriculture and religious groups.

MPN cites an EPA risk assessment from 2016 that links chlorpyrifos to autism, ADHD and other neurodevelopmental issues.

The organization says the pesticide is linked to such issues as preterm birth, low birth weight, congenital abnormalities, pediatric cancers, neurobehavioral and cognitive deficits, asthma, and permanent neurological damage and is toxic to aquatic life, bees and other pollinators, and 97% of all federally endangered or threatened species, including over 100 bird species.

Federal ban proposal in federal court

MPN says the EPA was prepared to ban its use for agriculture in 2016 but reversed course in 2017. The issue is currently tied up in federal court.

Colby Ferguson, government relations director for the Maryland Farm Bureau said the bill hurts the state’s agriculture industry.

“Banning this pesticide at the state level puts Maryland farmers at a competitive disadvantage to farmers in surrounding states and vulnerable to losing entire crops,” said Ferguson in an email. “While alternatives are available, they are more expensive and much less effective.”

“Farm gate income is at its lowest point since the agricultural depression in the 1980s and farmers cannot afford to lose this highly effective tool to control for pests and save their crops or lose business to farmers in surrounding states without the same restrictions,” he said.

Del. Christopher Adams, R-Middle Shore, proposed  an amendment that would have allowed the Department of Agriculture to grant an emergency waiver for a person to use chlorpyrifos to treat or eradicate an invasive species. That amendment failed by a vote of 44 to 91.