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Washington Apple Growers Struggle With Changing Pesticide Regulations

This article is part of Earth Eats' coverage of the 2010 Food in Bloom Conference held in Bloomington, Indiana from June 3-5, 2010. Nadine Lehrer presented her research "The Shifting Regulatory Context of Pesticide Use on Apples: Implications for Growers and Pest Management Consultants in Washington State" as part of a panel called "Pollution, Pesticides & Toxins: Its whats for Dinner"

An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but Washington state apple growers are trying to figure out how to keep pests away in the face of changing regulations on pesticide use.

Nadine Lehrer and her colleagues at the Washington State University Extension are trying to help farmers and preserve the crops that provide Americans with half of their apples.

Pesticides Harm The Environment, Workers

In 1959 farmers started using a pesticide called Guthion to keep codling moths (wikipedia) away from their crops.

Guthion, or azinphos-methyl, is a neurotoxin known as an organophosphate. It causes the muscles in certain bugs to contract so much that the insects eventually asphyxiate and die.

Given its affects on the moths, it's not hard to understand why workers applying Guthion in the orchards have eventually complained of health problems.

The United Farm Workers of America and others sued the EPA in 2004 over Guthions side effects and possible environment harm. The EPA decided to order a phase-out of the pesticide, with all use to be ended by 2012.

This sounds like a good idea, but actually getting the growers in Washington state to stop using Guthion has been a challenge for the Washington State Extension.

Less-Toxic Alternatives

There are new, less-toxic alternatives to Guthion, but they are more complicated to apply and require multiple applications at specific times.

"You have to know what insects at what life stages are in your orchards," says Lehrer, a problem that is complicated enough that it often forcers growers to hire consultants.

Additionally, these newer pesticides have not been studied as much as the old ones, and scientists and farmers are starting to see problems higher up in the food chain.

To figure out how to help apple growers best wean themselves off of Guthion, the Washington State University Extension has surveyed both growers and consultants.

The results showed that more than three-quarters of consultants continue to recommend Guthion as the most effective way to prevent codling moths from ruining apples, even though growers will have to stop using it in less than two years.

Farmers Slow To Switch

The good news: 50 percent of Washington apple growers are decreasing their usage of Guthion and other organophosphates.

The survey showed that smaller farmers are less likely to have started or completed phasing out organophosphates, largely because of the costs of newer pesticides and the additional knowledge required for their proper use.

Lehrer also says that big farms have an extra incentive to switch because then they can market themselves as more sustainable.

But, she says the farms that are switching pesticides are not doing it out of kindness. "Phasing out Guthion is not philosophically driven," she says. "It's a regulatory thing."

In fact, the survey showed that less than a third of apple growers think the phase-out will have a positive environmental effect, while less than half of consultants agree it will help the Earth.

Like it or not, the end is near for Guthion. Nonetheless, Lehrer says her office has a lot of work to do before all Washington state apple growers will become compliant.

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