Editor’s note: The risk-to-benefit calculation for pesticide use—whether for control of invasive plants, animals, fungi, or other organisms—is a subject of active debate within the environmental protection, conservation, and human health communities. But all can agree that adequate oversight of pesticide use to protect human health and the environment is of paramount importance. To learn the position of the California Native Plant Society statewide organization, read the policies on Use of Herbicide in Situations Where Native Vegetation May Be Affected and Wildland Invasive Plants-Invasive Weed Management.
On October 15, 2021, after nearly a decade of advocating for pesticide use restriction on behalf of California residents and the state’s natural and human-made environments, a coalition of environmental groups received a second court ruling in favor of its efforts to limit pesticide spraying in California.
In the February 2018 Bay Leaf, we reported that in 2018 the California Environmental Health Initiative (CEHI), along with 10 other environmental and public health organizations and the City of Berkeley, successfully sued the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) in superior court to restrict pesticide spraying in California. The October 2021 appeals court ruling affirms the most important points of that lawsuit.
CDFA has many goals, including a mandate to prevent the introduction and spread of injurious insect or animal pests, plant diseases, and noxious weeds in California. For decades, CDFA has carried out this mandate with limited environmental review of its pesticide spray programs. In 2014, CDFA released a Statewide Plant Pest Prevention and Management Program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) to broadly address its pesticide use program. The PEIR would give CDFA license to spray pesticides anywhere in the state—including in agricultural or nursery settings, in residential communities, near schools, at border protection stations, and sometimes outside California—into the indefinite future with no analysis of the health and environmental impacts at specific locations, no required public notice of specific pest treatment projects, and no opportunity for communities to opt out.
In its 2018 decision on the lawsuit against CDFA’s PEIR, the superior court affirmed several of the suit’s most important points and determined that aspects of CDFA’s PEIR violate the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The court ordered CDFA to set aside approval of its PEIR and suspend further activities under the program unless and until it corrects violations of CEQA.
CDFA disagreed with the superior court’s 2018 ruling and appealed the decision to the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento. On October 15 of this year, the court of appeal upheld key elements of the 2018 superior court ruling, determining that CDFA’s PEIR violates state environmental law in numerous ways. The appeals court noted that, among other problems, the PEIR does not require the agency to analyze environmental impacts of pesticide spraying in light of unique conditions at specific locations, the PEIR “significantly understates existing pesticide use” and therefore presents a distorted picture of the effect of adding more pesticide use, and the PEIR fails to protect pollinators and water bodies that are already impaired by pollution.
The sweeping defects the appeals court found in the PEIR make it likely that CDFA’s ability to use pesticides will be severely curtailed when final orders in the case are issued consistent with the appeals court’s ruling, and the agency will be under increasing pressure to join other state initiatives to transition to sustainable pest management techniques that prioritize the health of people and the environment.
The 12 plaintiffs in the successful lawsuit against CDFA’s PEIR were CEHI, the City of Berkeley, Environmental Working Group, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network North America, Beyond Pesticides, Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, Safe Alternatives for Our Forest Environments, Center for Environmental Health, Californians for Pesticide Reform, and Moms Advocating Sustainability. We three authors of this article are board members of CEHI, and our organization’s mission is to ensure that up-to-date science concerning health and environmental impacts is taken meaningfully into account in decision-making that affects agriculture and food production.
Comments by former statewide CNPS conservation program director Greg Suba, which were submitted during the early phases of the CDFA PEIR’s preparation, sum up what two courts have now concluded: “We are concerned that the proposed PEIR is overly broad and will not be able to adequately address, or even identify, environmental concerns associated with current and future pest management programs.”
With the rejection of its appeal in this case, CDFA now has a historic opportunity to join the state’s shift toward sustainable pest management, which is being put forward in multiple venues: the governor’s recently proposed sustainable agriculture budget, a Department of Pesticide Regulation working group established earlier this year to identify safer alternatives to pesticides, and the California Natural Resources Agency’s brand-new Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy, which calls for moving away from pesticides in residential and agricultural settings.
The following links provide summary information about these efforts to move our state toward sustainable pest management.
Court of Appeal Rejects California’s Blanket Approval of Pesticide Spraying: a press release about the court ruling from the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the 2018 lawsuit against CDFA’s PEIR.
The Governor’s Sustainable Agriculture Package appropriates $1.1 billion over two years to “support the agriculture sector and create a healthy, resilient, and equitable food system; create climate smart agriculture to support long term sustainability and resilience; and address economic recovery and high-road job growth.” Included are $10 million for “transition to safer, sustainable pest management” and $15 million for a “pollinator habitat program.”
New, Cross-Sector Work Group will Speed California’s Shift to Safer Pest Management: a press release about the launch of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s 26-member Sustainable Pest Management Work Group. The work group includes farmers, community members, university researchers, and representatives from commodity groups and the pesticide industry. Its assignment is to identify pathways to minimize the use of toxic pesticides and expand the use of integrated pest management practices; better protect public and environmental health; and engage, educate, and promote collaboration to achieve these goals. California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Jared Blumenfeld noted that “[t]ransitioning away from toxic pesticides requires us to speed up the development of effective alternatives. By giving our farmers a suite of integrated pest management tools, we can better protect farmworkers and some of California’s most vulnerable communities. This dynamic task force will give us the roadmap to achieve this bold vision.”
The California Natural Resources Agency’s Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy aims to help “achieve carbon neutrality and build resilience to the impacts of climate change” and, among many other goals, calls for the state to “advance safer, more sustainable pest management practices and tools to support the accelerated transition away from harmful pesticides.”
— Jane Kelly, Tom Kelly, Nan Wishner
Board members, California Environmental Health Initiative: “Science at the intersection of human health and agriculture”
Jane and Tom Kelly are also members of the CNPS East Bay Chapter