California officials banned a widely used farm pesticide Wednesday, handing a major victory to environmentalists while depriving farmers of a chemical they’ve employed for decades to protect almond orchards, cotton fields and more.
The decision by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration to ban the pesticide, known as chlorpyrifos, is also a significant rebuke to President Donald Trump. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under Trump has been defending the chemical against court challenges after the Obama administration took steps to prohibit its use.
“We’re saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ We can’t wait for the federal government, which has been very slow and has kind of flip-flopped,” Jared Blumenfeld, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, said in an interview.
Chlorpyrifos, developed by Dow Chemical in the 1960s as an alternative to DDT, has been banned for residential use nationwide since 2001. The product has been linked to neurological problems among farmworkers and their children.
“A lot of people live close to fields, schools are close to fields,” said Blumenfeld, who worked for the federal EPA under the Obama administration. “This actually reduces the IQ of Californians.”
Paulina Torres, of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, an advocacy group based in Delano, said the decision “is very exciting news” that will take a “toxic and dangerous” chemical out of commission.
The ban won’t actually be finalized for up to two years. Farmers can still use chlorpyrifos during the interim period but won’t be able to employ aerial spraying and must accept other restrictions. Newsom’s budget revision plan, to be unveiled in full Thursday, will include $5.7 million to study alternative pest-management methods and provide further assistance to farmers as they transition away from chlorpyrifos.
“We’re listening to agriculture,” Blumenfeld said. The Newsom administration has made a point of reaching out to the farm community, particularly on water issues.
The state’s farmers have been using less chlorpyrifos in recent years – from 2 million pounds in 2005 to 900,000 pounds in 2016, the latest year with data available – but it’s still a workhorse of California agriculture. Chlorpyrifos is used to control insects that can attack almonds, apricots and a host of other crops grown in California.
The California Farm Bureau Federation, which has argued that chlorpyrifos should be kept legal, said the state’s decision will put agriculture in a bind.
“Once again, farmers find themselves caught in the middle of a fight among activist groups, federal and state agencies,” president Jamie Johansson said in a prepared statement. “Food may become more expensive, and California-grown food less plentiful.”
When the ban is final, California will become the second state to prohibit the chemical’s use. Hawaii has banned it and New York’s Legislature passed a bill banning it.
On the national level, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March gave the Trump administration until mid-July to decide whether to ban the chemical or not.