The EPA and Food Security
Current as of May 2012
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for a number of activities that contribute to food security within the United States, in areas such as food safety, water quality, and pesticide applicator training. Through the exchange of expertise, EPA also contributes to food security throughout the world.
EPA’s primary contribution to food security is through its program to regulate the use of pesticides. EPA is responsible for ensuring that the American public is protected from potential health risks posed by eating foods that have been treated with pesticides. The Agency is responsible both for the registration of new pesticides before they can be marketed and the re-registration of older pesticides to ensure that they meet current scientific standards.
In the ten years after the passage of the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, EPA undertook a comprehensive review of tolerances for pesticide residues in food, with an emphasis on increasing protection for infants and children as well as other vulnerable groups. Progress of this review can be found at the following Web site: http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/tolerance/reassessment.htm.
Broadly defined, a pesticide is any agent used to kill or control undesired insects, weeds, rodents, fungi, bacteria, or other organisms. Pesticides are classified according to their function: insecticides control insects; rodenticides control rodents; herbicides control weeds; and fungicides control fungi, mold and mildew. Herbicides are the most widely used type of pesticide in agriculture, although pest problems and their management vary widely throughout the country, depending on climate, soil types and other factors. Chemical pest control plays a major role in modern agriculture, and has contributed to dramatic increases in crop yields over the past four decades for most field, fruit and vegetable crops. Pesticides have enabled growers to produce some crops profitably in otherwise unsuitable locations, extend growing seasons, maintain product quality and extend shelf life. Nevertheless, these chemicals also pose some risks if used improperly or too frequently.
Before a pesticide may be used on a food commodity, it must be approved for that use by EPA. Hundreds of tests are performed to determine that the product or its residues on foods will not present unreasonable risks to people, wildlife, fish, and plants. EPA is not only reviews and approves new pesticide products and uses before they come to market, but is systematically reviewing all older pesticides registered before November 1984 to ensure that they meet current testing and safety standards. In addition, FQPA required a registration review program that will require all pesticides on the market to be evaluated at least every 15 years to ensure that they meet current safety standards. EPA has the authority to limit the amount of pesticide applied, restrict the frequency or location of application, or require the use of specially trained, certified applicators.
Many pesticides, even when they are applied legally, in accordance with label directions, may leave residues in or on treated fruits, vegetables, grains and other commodities. Though pesticide residues often decrease over time as food crops are washed, stored, processed, and prepared, some residues may remain in both fresh produce (like apples or tomatoes) and processed foods (like applesauce or tomato catsup).
To ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply, EPA sets tolerances, or maximum residue limits, on the amount of pesticide residue that can lawfully remain in or on each treated food commodity. In establishing tolerances, EPA considers the toxicity of each pesticide, how much of the pesticide is applied and how often, and how much of the pesticide (i.e., the residues) remains in or on food. An added margin of safety ensures that residues remaining in foods are many times lower than amounts that could actually cause adverse health effects.
The pesticide tolerances set by EPA are enforced by the Food and Drug Administration, which monitors domestically produced and imported foods traveling in interstate commerce except meat, poultry, and some egg products.
The FQPA required EPA to review the more than 9,700 tolerances established before August 3, 1996 (the day the new law was enacted) within 10 years, to ensure that the data used to evaluate them meet current scientific standards. The tolerance reassessment is a thorough review of potential risks to humans and the environment. EPA has nearly completed this review.
EPA has registered new, safer products to replace older, more traditional pesticides on the farm, as well as in the backyard. A challenge for EPA is to ensure that pest control and pesticide use become increasingly safer each year. To meet this challenge, EPA is promoting safer pesticides and reducing risks through the re-registration process. EPA is also expediting approval of safer, reduced-risk pesticides, and assessing more completely the potential risks of pesticide products, with special protections for infants and children.
For much of its history, the primary function of EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs has been to register and regulate pesticides, particularly chemical pesticides, as mandated by law. In recent years, however, this focus has begun to shift towards promoting systems of pest management that better protect health and the environment while enhancing the quality of our lives. This approach recognizes that pesticides are only one element in controlling pests and that, in some cases, non-chemical alternatives can be as effective as chemical pesticides with fewer health or environmental risks.
Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, involves using an array of pest control methods to achieve the best results with the least disruption of the environment. Examples of IPM methods include cultivating pest-resistant plant varieties, adjusting planting times to avoid pest infestations, using beneficial or predatory insects such as ladybugs and parasitic wasps to control crop-destroying bugs, stationing traps containing pheromones (sex hormones) to remove fertile adults from the reproductive cycle, and destroying nesting areas by plowing under harvested crops or shredding leaf litter on orchard floors. Chemical pesticides are utilized in IPM only if pest levels reach predetermined threshold levels, rather than spraying on regular schedules. Studies suggest that IPM techniques generally increase crop yields and economic profits, while reducing the use of chemical pesticides.
Modern biotechnology has enabled the production of new plant-pesticides. For example, new types of agricultural plants that have been altered to produce proteins toxic to insects that destroy crops. Such plant-pesticides reduce the need for conventional pesticide applications, thereby reducing production costs as well as risks to workers and non-target insects.
As IPM programs are more widely adopted, farmers will depend less on the use of conventional pesticides to control disease and insect outbreaks, and EPA will continue to encourage the use of non-chemical agricultural pest control.
EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs has developed partnerships with foreign governments and international organizations to develop common or compatible international approaches to pesticide review, registration and standard-setting. Partnerships with both developed and developing countries allow EPA to promote public health and environmental protection on a global scale, share the work of reviewing data with other countries, reduce trade barriers and regulatory burdens, and enhance food safety.
Among its policy-related activities, EPA provides support to the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission , a joint program of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization, that sets international tolerances for pesticide residues in foods. EPA’s work with Codex and in World Trade Organization committees focuses on human, animal and plant health protection standards, and is designed both to promote harmonization and to ensure that international agreements are consistent with the high level of protection afforded by U.S. standards.
On a programmatic level, EPA works with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the North American Free Trade Agreement Technical Working Group on Pesticides on a number of projects. With OECD, EPA is working to harmonize procedures for submitting and documenting technical reviews that support pesticide regulatory decisions; update and standardize testing guidelines; and carry out risk reduction programs such as improved pesticide labeling requirements. The NAFTA Technical Working Group has a wide array of projects designed, not only to harmonize pesticide regulatory requirements, but to maintain the high standard of food safety protections in the United States, Canada and Mexico. EPA is also working with Canada to increase information and work sharing on IPM issues, as well as pesticide tolerances.
To achieve global environmental and food safety goals, EPA believes it essential to work with developing countries to assist them in building their capacity to regulate pesticides and manage chemical production, distribution, use, and disposal. EPA has developed and managed numerous training courses on managing and disposing of obsolete pesticides; applying agricultural pesticides for field workers; diagnosing and treating pesticide poisoning for physicians; and laboratory testing of pesticide residues. In addition, EPA has helped develop regional pesticide information networks in Asia and Central America. Work sharing and harmonization increase food security for every country undertaking these partnerships.
EPA is proud to contribute to world food security through its programs to establish health-based pesticide residue standards; expedite the approval of safer pesticides; encourage development of non-chemical pest control methods; improve availability of information; and, when resources permit, to provide training and technical assistance to farmers worldwide.
If you would like additional information about EPA’s pesticide programs, contact the
Communication Services Branch
Office of Pesticide Programs
1200 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20460