EPA move to allow new pesticide use on food crops worries health advocates

Federal regulators are poised to allow US farmers to start applying a pesticide currently restricted to non-food uses on fields producing an array of food crops in a move that scientists and advocates say could threaten human and ecological health.

Last week, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposed decision to allow the first-ever uses of chlormequat chloride on wheat, barley, oats and a hybrid of rye and wheat known as triticale. The agency said the move is aimed at helping farmers limit the bending and breaking of small grains, a condition called lodging, which can impair harvesting and reduce yields. The pesticide acts as a plant growth regulator, controlling plant size by blocking hormones that stimulate growth prior to bloom.

Chlormequat is not currently approved for use on food or animal feed in the United States, though it has been allowed for use on ornamental crops grown in nurseries and greenhouses since 1962.

Farm groups welcomed the EPA action; the pesticide is already used by farmers in other countries on small grain products that are imported to the US. But critics say laboratory research has linked the chemical to problems with reproduction and development, and the EPA should not be putting people and animals at greater risk of exposure.

The crops included in the proposed decision can make up a significant portion of a child’s diet, a fact that makes the EPA’s proposal potentially dangerous for children, according to Phil Landrigan, a professor of public health and epidemiologist at Boston College.