California's Department of Pesticide Regulation is turning back the clock to four years ago as it, like all other state agencies, are feeling the fallout from reduced government funding as a result of a slowdown in the economy of the world's fifth largest economy.

DPR director Paul Helliker said it would not be a free fall all the way back to when he took over, but the changes will be significant.

They include:

  • DPR will no longer conduct concurrent registrations with the federal EPA on “reduced risk” pesticides. Only microbial, biopesticides and anti-microbial products will get that special treatment. EPA must first register reduced risk compounds, which do not fall into one of those three categories, before DPR will accept them for review, and California data requirements will be unchanged. This likely will put California producers 12 to 18 months or more behind the rest of the nation in having some compounds available. Products now in concurrent review are not affected by this change.

  • Pest management grants and pest management alliance funding will drop to $300,000 annually from $1.5 million.

  • Residue sampling on fruits and vegetables will be reduced by 25 percent. However, there is a good news scenario behind this. Inspectors are finding increasingly less evidence of pesticide residue in food, justifying a cutback in funding without jeopardizing public health.

  • Groundwater, surface water and air monitoring activities will be reduced by from 25 to 50 percent. However, the cost of some of this will be shifted to registrants as part of product re-evaluations and that is not setting well with some registrants.

  • Cutbacks in training for the use of integrated pest management (IPM) in schools. This one is causing Helliker considerable grief in the wake of the recently passed Healthy Schools Act, which orders schools to reduce reliance on pesticide applications.

Mill tax drops

The pesticide industry contributes about 60 percent of DPR's funding through a mill tax, which has gone down in recent years. It was 21 mills in 1997 and is now 17.5. It was lowered partly to work off a $13 million surplus.

“That surplus is gone, meaning that not only is DPR being forced to take a budget hit from the state general fund, the department's funding from the mill tax is reduced,” said Helliker. The total shortfall is $6.4 million.

What is not being cut is what Helliker calls the department's “core” programs of enforcing pesticide use and reporting laws and worker health and safety.

There will be cutbacks elsewhere in the pesticide evaluation and review process, but Helliker has worked to avoid Draconian slices.

There are no cutbacks in the department's review of methyl bromide alternatives.

“We will continue to do minor crop chemistry data reviews for EPA in an effort to get products to the market sooner in California. We had planned to move into dietary review in this area, but we will not be able to do that with the budget cutbacks,” he said.

EPA's economic plight is not unlike DPR's and Helliker said the two agencies will begin more focused joint planning each year to maximize their efforts in identifying pests and pesticides combinations important to California, especially in-season.

Planning shift

“This is a shift to more coherent planning on an annual bases rather than responding to categories registrants designate as reduced risk,” he said.

Several years ago a hue and cry went out that minor crops would be left out in the re-evaluation of existing pesticides and development of new ones. That has not necessarily become the case as many new California crop-specific compounds have been registered in the past few years.

“California agriculture continues to evolve into higher value crops. Chemical companies are responding to these changes because California producers have the ability to look at profitable marketing opportunities now and in the future that other more traditional commodities may not,” said Helliker.

Besides that, Helliker said California has more than its share of exotic pests showing up and “the need to protect” many of California's lucrative, so-called specialty crops gives chemical companies an opportunity to market new products.

“The budget cuts we are going through are probably not the end of the world…doing what we were three or four years ago,” said Helliker. “It is disheartening, but I think we have set some benchmarks like the IR-4 program and some of our e-government efforts that remain in place.”

hcline@primediabusiness.com