When Brian Leahy was appointed director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation a little more than a year ago, there were those in the agchem industry and agriculture who were apprehensive about his appointment.

After all, Leahy has a long history of organic farming dating back decades when he grew organic rice in the Sacramento Valley and later was an organic farmer in Nebraska, long before organics were as fashionable as they are today.

More than a few thought DPR would turn into an anti-agchem agency. However, Leahy has surprised many as he travels around the state to speak, as he did at the California Weed Science Society’s 65th annual conference in Sacramento.

He is actually pro agchem products and has been heaping high praise on the job California agriculture is doing producing safe, healthy foods. He repeatedly cites the role DDT has played over the years in controlling mosquitoes and reducing malaria deaths. Malaria has killed more people than all the wars in history, he often points out.

His “greatest challenge” is not within California agriculture. It is land use and urban encroachment into agricultural areas. “Urban people are scared of pesticides. They want to know that their children are safe from pesticides. The only way to do that is to make sure pesticides do not get into their houses.” He thinks agriculture has largely achieved that.

“We have done a lot of work over the past 30 years reducing non-target hits. We are keeping pesticides applied where they belong,” he says.

He cited the professionalism of the pest control advisers (PCAs) and educated farmers in achieving this goal.

“Most of the issues we see today are not from rural areas,” he said. They are from “non-professional users in urban environments.”

 

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The urban-ag interface is nowhere more evident than in strawberry production, which often adjoins major urban areas.

Leahy is leading the effort, working with the California Strawberry Commission, to develop innovative practices to lessen the tension between growers and their neighbors.

The focus is on trying to find alternatives to methyl bromide and other fumigants for strawberry production.

He has empowered a working group to determine what the barriers are to finding a non-fumigant solution to methyl bromide.

It is a daunting task, but no more so than the field-burning issue the California rice industry faced several years ago. He hopes strawberry growers can be as innovative as rice producers who found alternatives to burning that not only dramatically reduced smoke in Northern California, but enhanced wildlife habitat through flooding in the winter rather than burning rice straw. Burning remains an option for rice growers who need it for disease control, but overall it is down dramatically.

Neonicotinoids, pesticide challenges

He also cited the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s “robust” pesticide residue testing program that gives consumer confidence that their food supply is clean.

“CDFA is not finding very much, and what they do find is way below threshold levels,” Leahy said. “The food supply in this state is incredibly safe, and we need to get the message out that fresh fruits and vegetables are safe and healthy.”

However, DPR is not without its challenges. For years, DPR has focused on protecting human health. This has come via strict testing protocols required for new chemistry registration.

Unfortunately, those protocols have not been as extensive for evaluating pesticide impacts on the environment.

“We need tests today that tell us if we have problems with pesticide use in the environment,” he said. He cited the current controversy over the role neonicotinoids play on honey bee losses.

 

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This challenge is coming from within a new set of agchem products that are very safe to humans. Leahy said gone are highly persistent products that do not break down quickly in the environment as new chemistry classes. “The new chemistry we are seeing is a vast improvement over what we used to use. It is very safe for people,” he said. Unfortunately, environmental issues are surfacing with these products. 

“It is a challenge to bring a new pesticide to market. It takes a decade and cost up to $250 million,” he said. “We want new innovations, but we do not want to put barriers in the way to slow down the process.”

He reiterated another challenge he cites often: misuse of pesticides by urban dwellers. He said pesticide exposure issues are coming increasingly from urban use.

“We want to make sure we have the tools to keep our houses and businesses free of cockroaches (and other pests), but we do not want to hurt people or the environment in the process.”

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