Maryland Department of Agriculture reports decrease in pesticide use

by Katie Pohlman
Special to The Gazette

A new statewide report shows pesticide use among farmers, public agencies and commercially licensed businesses is down in Maryland, but some pesticide opponents are wary of the findings.

The voluntary survey completed by the Maryland Department of Agriculture released May 28, states the amount of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides used in 2011 was about 4.7 million pounds, about 50 percent less than the 10.5 million pounds used in 2004. The survey focused on commercial pesticide use and did not include residential users.

The department received 3,434 responses to the survey. Certified public applicators accounted for 49.6 percent of responses, farm operators 24.9 percent, and licenses commercial applicators and public agencies accounted for 19.4 and 6.1 percent, respectively. According to the report however, just 856 farmer operators out of the 12,800 in the state replied to the survey, meaning the report showed results for 7 percent of all farms in the state.

Ruth Berlin, director of the Maryland Pesticide Network questioned how many pounds of pesticides are being used by the farmers who didn’t respond.

In response to these concerns, Berlin said the Maryland Pesticide Network supported a bill that originally would have required all major pesticide applicators in the state to submit their annual use in a database. State licensed pesticide applicators are already required to keep records of pesticide use at their place of business, but the state doesn’t collect them. This database could then be used to help scientists find links between pesticide use and its effects on the Chesapeake Bay as well as cancer and autism clusters found in certain communities, Berlin said.

“This (current) voluntary, once-every-five-year survey only provides a small sampling of applicators – only about 20 percent of farmers – and does not provide needed information on what pesticides have been used, when and where needed to help public health experts and scientists looking at possible links between pesticides used to disease clusters or problems in the Bay,” Berlin said.

The original bill was met with much opposition from the farm community, but an amended version, the Pesticide Reporting and Information Act SB 675 and HB 775, was passed in the 2013 state legislative session. The amended version requires a group of state lawmakers to meet after July 1 to decide on whether a statewide database will be implemented or not. A decision about the format in which data should be collected in, recommendation on how data should be collected and whether or not legislation will be needed to implement the data collection system must be reached by December 31, Berlin said.

Josh Tulkin, president of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, said any survey showing pesticide use has decreased is good, but citizens want information that is closer to home.

“A statewide average is not very compelling,” he said. “People are concerned with the pesticide use in their community.”

More farmers are using an integrated pest management system to decrease the amount of pesticides they use on their crops, Howard said. Integrated pest management uses organic, natural methods to prevent pest damage on crops and encourages using pesticides only as a last resort.

“There’s very little need to use pesticides on land,” Berlin said. “Focusing on feeding the soil, overseeding and aerating creates healthy turf and minimizes weeds.”

She said integrated pest management is a great way to reduce pesticide use, but believes more needs to be done to monitor the amount of pesticides used annually. She argues the recent survey doesn’t show any substantial findings.

All non-homeowner pesticide applicators would have to submit those records to the database, if lawmakers decide to develop one, Berlin said.

Tulkin hopes that data about fertilizer use, which was not tracked by this survey, appears in the near future as well.

“Fertilizer impacts the Bay greatly, causing dead zones and bacteria rich environments,” he said.

— Also published by Southern Maryland News

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