The debate swirling around California's plans to limit the amount of fumigants used on farm fields continues to gain momentum, with industry experts arguing that reductions will make little difference to the state's air quality. State officials are countering that they are under court order to make it happen by the end of this year.

The latest round of talks on fumigant emissions took place recently during a day and a half regulatory conference hosted by Western Plant Health Association (WPHA). Speakers were featured from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), industry and university experts, as well as keynote speaker George Gomes, undersecretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The conference included various panel discussions on everything from the pyrethroid reevaluation and groundwater issues, to the enforcement of pesticide laws and Proposition 65. However, the bulk of discussions continued to focus on proposed DPR rules that have the potential of removing thousands of acres of cropland from production, leading to scores of job losses — with millions of dollars in farming revenue hanging in the balance.

“Everybody had an idea of what somebody else should be doing to help solve air quality problems, but nobody wanted to impact themselves, so they said others should be dealing with it,” DPR's assistant director Jerry Campbell told the crowd of 100.

“There is still a lot of resistance and a lot of denial, but the fact is that it is a little late in the process to keep asking for better data or better science. We know some of the science we're basing our VOC (volatile organic compound) regulations on is not the standard that we normally would operate on, and the standard we feel proud of in California, but we've got to move forward. It's time we do our fair share; we all knew this day was coming.”

During his comments — in which Campbell honestly admitted “it is not the best work we (DPR) have ever done” because of the time constraints posed by the court order — industry representatives listened attentively as Campbell stated that caps will indeed be placed on the usage of pest-killing soil fumigants, which contribute to smog. These new rules require a 20 percent emissions reduction in three regions of California by Jan. 1, 2008: Ventura County, the San Joaquin Valley and the southeast desert.

July's WPHA regulatory conference followed on the heels of two DPR public hearings in Ontario and Parlier to weigh the pros and cons of the new proposals. The feedback gathered from these meetings is now under DPR review and a final public comment period will be offered in the following weeks before the new rules go into effect.

No one seems happy with DPR's proposals — not the farm workers, environmentalists, or fumigant manufacturers, and certainly not farmers.

“We've known for about 20 years that eventually agriculture was going to have to step up and do something in this state,” Campbell continued, noting that the San Joaquin Valley is so smoggy most of the year that its mountain ranges disappear from view.“Some blame it on cars and trucks. Well, basically, the car issue has been addressed and all the low hanging fruit has been picked.”

He said that about 66 tons of emissions per day come from vehicles in the valley. Another 16 percent is due to petroleum production and livestock waste. He added that for decades agriculture has enjoyed “a free ride” in not dealing with air issues. “California is always on the leading edge — which is frequently the bleeding edge — particularly on air repair challenges, and we're going to move forward whether we like it or not.”

CDFA Undersecretary Gomes, who spoke at the end of the conference, added that producing crops in California not only requires clean air, but a bountiful supply of water. He said he is actively involved with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in promoting to state lawmakers and voters the governor's $5.9 billion water works package, that includes $4.5 billion for two new reservoirs.

“Literally, 25 million people today, out of 36 million people living in California, depend on the water passing through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. We are only an earthquake, or a storm, or flood away from having that lost. I am so pleased that the governor has taken the leadership in this regard,” Gomes said. “We have a unique opportunity now to get a fix on the Delta and get some additional water supplies.”

The undersecretary noted that with 60 million people projected to be living in California by 2050, the state is under enormous pressure to improve air quality and water supplies, and to keep on top of research that benefits agriculture and its farmers and consumers. He pointed to the farm bill that is currently under review by Congress. The far-reaching farm bill, agreed upon by the House, allocates some $1.6 billion to specialty crops over the next five years. The money would pay for research, block grants, federal purchases, and conservation.

“We know that California produces half of this nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables,” he said. “What is important in specialty crops is the concern about public health over the early onset of childhood obesity and diabetes. The solution is more fruits and vegetables in the diet. And if California produces half of this supply, than that means California is integral to the health of this nation. If we didn't have this domestic supply we would have to get this food from foreign countries like we do foreign oil. I hope this is not the public policy direction we want to go.”

A principal concern of Gomes' is global warming, and he fears it's a serious threat to California agriculture.

“Climate change is a buzzword that has been around for a long time but it is a reality now, not only as it pertains to California, but the U.S. and worldwide. So are we going to ignore it or try to prepare to cope with it?”

He suggested that audience members request that their companies fund additional research into global warming so that agriculture nationwide can thrive, and California can maintain its title of being the breadbasket of America.

“I always remind my colleagues that the prevailing wind always blows from the West to the East. So, if you like the cool breezes that come across your states, keep in mind there are political factors, there's science, there's research and those things that are happening in California will reach your state at some point,” he said. “So, help us get the research funds that we need to do what has to be done.”