Republican Farm Bill would weaken pesticide protections and put communities at risk

Language in the bill seeks to limit local authority to regulate pesticide use and sue pesticide companies

Published June 27, 2024 12:05PM (EDT)

Harvesting alfalfa crop, aerial view. (Getty Images)
Harvesting alfalfa crop, aerial view. (Getty Images)

The House Committee on Agriculture’s draft of the 2024 Farm Bill would weaken protections against pesticides, potentially harming communities and simultaneously benefit some of Big Ag’s most notorious pesticide companies, critics say.

The Farm Bill is a package of legislation passed every five years that funds everything from crop insurance to food stamps. In May, the House Committee on Agriculture released their $1.5 trillion draft of the bill, which is set to be renewed in September. From SNAP cuts, to limiting animal welfare protections, the proposed bill has drawn a wealth of criticism from advocacy groups and local officials. 

Most recently, critics are sounding the alarm over language in the bill that could prevent states’ abilities to regulate pesticide use and prevent individuals from taking legal action against pesticide companies.

Right now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the federal regulations for pesticide use and exposure and all states must abide by these regulations. But states and municipalities can implement stricter pesticide regulations as they see fit – and they often do.

For example, in April, California banned the use of Paraquat, a weedkiller that’s been used on fields since the 1960s and has been linked to increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. It is banned in over a dozen countries.

According to research by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), over 40 states restrict pesticide use near schools and playgrounds as children are more susceptible to the health risks that come with pesticide exposure. Across the country, over 4,000 elementary schools are located within 200 feet of a field where pesticides may be applied, the EWG found. 

If the House Farm Bill were to pass, local authorities couldn’t do anything to regulate this, beyond what’s already included in the EPA’s federal regulations.

“This would undo the original intent of the landmark U.S. pesticide laws, which were intended to be the floor for pesticide regulations, allowing states and localities to pass additional regulations meant to protect their citizens and account for local circumstances,” the EWG said.

A group of local officials recently wrote a letter to the House Committee on Agriculture, expressing their concern over weakened pesticide regulations in the farm bill and the potential implications. 

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“It is critical that local governments have the ability to exercise their democratic rights in order to safeguard the health of their residents and the unique local environments they call home. We urge you to oppose federal pesticide preemption in the Farm Bill to protect public health and the environment,” they wrote in the letter.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has previously called exposure to hazardous pesticides “a major public health concern.” Pesticide exposure can cause a vast array of acute and long-term health complications including increased risk of cancer, brain and nervous system damage, infertility and liver and kidney damage.

Farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of pesticide exposure. An estimated 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops each year, exposing farmworkers to harmful chemicals with little protection. According to a report by Farmworker Justice, “pesticide exposure causes farmworkers to suffer more chemical-related illnesses than any other workforce nationwide.”

The many harms associated with pesticide exposure have resulted in lawsuits and litigation against pesticide. Last year, Bayer was ordered to pay over $1 billion to people who were exposed to glyphosate and later developed a type of blood cancer. 

But language included in section 10204 of the Farm Bill shields pesticide companies from lawsuits like these that seek compensation for the harm caused by pesticide products. 

As Civil Eats reported, this is no coincidence. Companies like Bayer, and CropLife American have been lobbying against individuals’ abilities to sue over harm caused by their chemicals. Over 300 Big Ag industry groups are supporting their efforts

“Litigation has already revealed that companies have spent decades covering up harm,” Daniel Hinkle, the senior state affairs counsel for the American Association for Justice told Civil Eats. “This is an effort to not only cut off the ability of farmers, farmworkers, and groundskeepers to hold the companies accountable, it’s an effort to prevent the public from ever learning about the dangers in the first place.” 

The current farm bill is set to expire on Sept. 30, but with the presidential elections taking place just over a month later, many doubt there will be a full passage of the farm bill in 2024.  

House Minority leader Hakeem Jeffreys, D-N.Y., said the bill is “dead on arrival,” when it comes to garnering enough Democratic support to pass. Still, critics are adamant that all aspects of the bill that weaken pesticide protections be eliminated immediately.

By Marin Scotten

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Analysis Farm Bill Pesticides Republicans