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Skeptics question pesticide industry report on economic benefits

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WASHINGTON – The use of pesticides added $1.88 billion to Arkansas crop value, spurred $3.74 billion in additional economic activity and generated 11,081 jobs within the state, according to an industry report released Tuesday.

CropLife America, the organization behind the report which represents manufacturers and distributers of the agricultural chemicals, sought to gauge how the increased production from the use of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides impacted the economy, according to Mark Goodwin, the report’s project manager.

But the report has drawn skepticism from economists and analysts. At best, critics say the report exaggerates the economic impact of the chemicals and at worst loses sight of the greater impact.

The general premise that advances in agriculture have helped boost the U.S. economy is correct, said Kitty Smith, chief economist for American Farmland Trust and the former administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. “But the accounting of the values of those directionally correct findings is very, very hazy.”

In one section, the report states that 100 percent of nut and fruit crop value in Arkansas is derived from the use of pesticides.

“I can’t buy into that,” said L. Lanier Nalley, assistant professor of agricultural economics and agribusiness at University of Arkansas. “The only way it goes down to 0 percent is if your orchard burns down,” and not by removing pesticides.

There have been advances beyond crop protection products, like increased fertilizer use, which have accounted for increased yields but are not represented in this report, said Smith.

The report was specifically framed to answer, “What proportion of the crop is generated because of the use of crop protection products?” Goodwin said. “There are whole crops in the fruit, vegetable and nut sector that we would not be able to produce on a commercial scale if it were not for insecticide and fungicide in particular.”

Beyond the differing approach to economic analysis, the greater social cost of agricultural chemicals is overlooked in this report, according to Robyn O’Brien, former financial analyst and founder of the nonprofit AllergyKids Foundation.

“That’s great for the industry to be touting the economic advantages that they provide, but I think that it’s incomplete at best,” O’Brien said. “It’s slightly irresponsible to only address part of the model when you really got to look at the impact that their products are having on the health of our economy and the health of our families.”

O’Brien pointed to the 2009 Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk report by the President’s Cancer Panel, which stated “Pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides) approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contain nearly 900 active ingredients, many of which are toxic.”

“To fail to address the economic burden of these diseases that the President’s Cancer Panel shows are [induced by crop protection products]is irresponsible,” O’Brien said.

At the crux of the debate is the structure of the American agriculture system.

With less than 2 percent of the population growing food for a nation of more than 300 million, fruits, vegetables and nuts cannot be commercially grown without crop protection products, said Goodwin.

Past studies have shown techniques where “You could make a system work where you could reduce herbicide use by 90 percent, but the only way you could do that was shrink farm size, introduce livestock and go back to the small family oriented farm,” said Goodwin. In addition, there would need to be a dramatic increase in labor, what Goodwin calls a “return to the land of millions of people currently inventing iPods and dancing in ballets.”

Acknowledging that the majority of farming relies on crop protection products, Nalley, the Arkansas agriculture economist said, “This study is fascinating in the sense that we undervalue insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. Even if these numbers are inflated by 50 percent, could you imagine the impact [of removing pesticides]from the food supply?”

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