Pesticide companies and farmers could soon face a raft of costly delays related to the monthlong government shutdown.
With the Environmental Protection Agency closed, including its Office of Pesticide Programs, the process for approving new pesticides has ground to a halt.
“Pesticides are among the most heavily regulated products in the country,” said Chris Novak, president of CropLife America, a trade organization representing agricultural pesticide companies.
“Our members and their farm customers depend on predictable regulatory and scientific support from the government,” he said.
Novak told Bloomberg Environment product approvals that were expected to be in hand prior to this spring’s planting season will be delayed, possibly meaning some innovative crop protection tools will not be available—or only at higher costs—to farmers in the coming year.
The process of registering new pesticides is a scientific, legal, and administrative process that the regulatory office carries out in accordance with the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.
The statute requires all pesticides sold or distributed in the United States to be registered and approved by EPA.
“But right now we can’t submit any new applications,” said Keith Pitts, chief sustainability officer for Marrone Bio Innovations, a pesticide company based in Davis, Calif.
“We’ve got several label amendments that we intended to submit back in December but are now having to just sit on our hands because nobody is home at EPA,” he said.
Pitts said even minor changes to labels can play a big role in downstream production decisions, and the ability for pesticide products to be used on new crops.
“Fruits and vegetables are a big market for us, which means Q3 and Q4 are big sales months,” he said. “If they don’t get this figured out soon, there are some market expansion opportunities we probably won’t be able to achieve.”
According to the pesticides law, any changes that companies want to make to product formulations, intended uses, packaging, or labeling need to be reapproved.
With the growing season looming, companies might not be willing to simply extend previous deadlines by the length of the shutdown.
When the government finally opens, “EPA will likely face an enormous backlog of actions that weren’t finalized before the shutdown,” said Bill Jordan, a consultant and former deputy director of the Office of Pesticide Programs.
The EPA may face pressure to renegotiate decision time frames with respect to pending applications, Jordan said.
“And I suspect they’ll also have a backlog of requests from state agencies for emergency exemptions for unregistered pesticide uses, especially if starts stretching into February or beyond,” he said.
The EPA also processes thousands of applications for so-called “me-too” chemicals—pesticides that are nearly identical to other products already on the market.
“EPA is normally able to process those applications pretty quickly,” said Jim Aidala, a government affairs consultant for Bergeson and Campbell PC.
Many farmers and small and medium-sized businesses are banking on those me-too approvals for the upcoming crop season, Aidala said.
“A six week backlog could really screw stuff up,” he said. “Especially if growers were depending on those products.”
Import Delays, Cost Spikes
In addition to delays related to new pesticide products, those that are already registered also might face delays and supply problems.
Every year the U.S. imports large amounts of generic, off-patent chemical ingredients, primarily from China, which are then blended into new pesticides here.
“There’s a growing concern, from retailers and chemical companies, that those shipments could get held up in ports because of delays in customs processing,” said Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association.
Customs and border patrol agents are considered essential staff not subject to the furlough.
Imports of certain environmentally sensitive items, such as chemicals, also may need additional certifications from the EPA or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose staff are furloughed.
“If we get to March and those shipments of chemicals don’t come, or are limited, there could much less supply available to farmers, and when the supply is short, costs go up,” Payne said.
According to a statement provided by the EPA, while the typical pesticide reviews aren’t occurring during the funding lapse, which began Dec. 22, 2018, the agency is taking measures to make sure human health and the environment are protected.
“EPA will have experts on call to assist with any emergency situations and to also assist other agencies and states (including Customs and Border Patrol) should they have pesticide-related questions related to human health or the environment,” said James Hewitt, a spokesperson for EPA.
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