'Marketplace' Report: Wash That Fruit

Consumers and farmers will soon be on their own when it comes to finding out which pesticides are being sprayed on what. The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to stop publishing its survey tracking pesticide use.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is Day to Day. The federal government will no longer tell us what pesticides are used on our fruits and vegetables. It's because of budget cuts. Farmers and environmentalists are not happy about that. Marketplace's Janet Babin is here, and Janet, what kind of information was in these reports and who was using them?

JANET BABIN: Well, Madeleine, the surveys contained detailed information and data about the types and amounts of pesticides applied crops. Farmers would use these reports to track trends and see, you know, what pesticides were working for their neighbors, and activists, of course, would use the data to check out if the pesticides were showing up in the environment where they weren't supposed to be showing up. Chemical companies like Monsanto used these government surveys to crosscheck with their own data, and the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, used the reports to decide how chemicals should be regulated and figure out which pesticides, if any, where the biggest threat to public health.

Now, I spoke today with Fawn Pattison at Toxic Free North Carolina. She's an activist group leader, and her group used to use these reports on a regular basis, especially to track pesticides like methyl bromide in the state of North Carolina that are used on tomatoes. Now, she's going to have to get the info from the private sector, but that's going to be cost-prohibitive for her small non-profit group, whereas the government reports were free.

Ms. FAWN PATTISON (Executive Director, Toxic Free NC): I was just looking at the farm bill, you know, which has a tax break for resource centers, and we're cutting this eight-million-dollar program that has a huge impact on public health and the environment and data reliability. It doesn't make any sense.

BRAND: So, Janet, it sounds like these reports were really useful to lots of people. Why did the USDA cut them - cut the program?

BABIN: Well, it seems it was a process of elimination, Madeleine. It was an eight-million-dollar program in a 160-million annual budget, and when budgets are tight, as a lot of us know, every dollar counts. I spoke with Joe Reilly from the National Agricultural Statistic Service about this. He's acting administrator there. And he says it was - with the process of elimination that, you know, he couldn't get rid of reports that directly influence commodities markets. Things like the monthly crop report and live stock reports, we had to have them, and he also didn't want to cut direct aid to farmers for disaster relief or crop insurance. That had to stay in the budget. And since there are private companies that compile this data, a few of them, the USDA considered that these reports were the most expandable, but Riley told me that he knows, this program elimination isn't really ideal.

Mr. JOSEPH T. REILLY (Acting Administrator, National Agriculture Statistic Service): It will be difficult. It's a void and we do know that there's a need for the information out there, but we had to make some tough budget calls.

BABIN: And he wants to see the funding restored.

BRAND: So, if it is restored, how quickly could the program be back up and running?

BABIN: It could happen pretty quickly. Most of the data is collected in the fall, after the harvest, and all the infrastructure's in place. It's just a question of finding that eight million dollars.

BRAND: Thank you, Janet. That's Janet Babin of Public Radio's daily business show Marketplace.

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BRAND: The world's worst movie director when Day to Day continues.

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