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The California Department of Pesticide Regulation is on a road to nowhere.

DPR’s current strategic plan draft for 2024-28 proposes vague plans to eliminate only so-called “high-priority pesticides” by 2050. This is not enough to ensure the long-term health of the farmworkers who breathe in the pesticides DPR registers or to protect any of us who live in the community.

I don’t expect to be alive in 2050, and the young activists of today will be middle-aged. That is far too long to wait.

We need to move toward organic and regenerative agriculture in Santa Cruz County as soon as possible to benefit human and environmental health. We also need to sequester carbon in the soil as a solution to greenhouse gas reduction.

On Oct. 30, DPR held a hearing in Watsonville to get feedback from the public on its current plan, which it will present formally next year. People came from the local community and as far away as Ventura County to demand pesticide reduction and elimination and an increase in organic and regenerative practices. Most of the comments were highly critical of DPR’s plan. Several speakers referenced the documentary “Common Ground,” which played in Santa Cruz on Oct. 21 and provides evidence of human health harms from current agricultural practices. It also features down-to-earth farmers who focus on healthy, living soil as a solution to climate change.

For me, one of the biggest problems of DPR’s flawed plan is that it offers detailed goals and benchmarks, but leaves dates for completion blank. For example, Goal 1.2 is “improve timeliness and transparency of science-based evaluation and registration of pesticide products.”

It doesn’t say when or how this will happen or what “timeliness” actually means. Also, the science DPR uses evaluates only one pesticide at a time in isolation, often with classic lab-rat studies conducted by chemical manufacturers. DPR fails to account for the cumulative impacts of multiple pesticides applied over time.

The result is not science but magical thinking.

Since 2018, a consistent 1 million pounds of pesticides have been applied in Santa Cruz County each year; a record 67% of them are fumigant gases, which can travel for miles, drifting into our city. Chloropicrin is listed by the state as a toxic air contaminant (TAC); 1,3-dichloropropene, also known as 1,3-D or Telone, is a TAC and a carcinogen. Metam sodium, the third-most-used fumigant, is a TAC, a carcinogen and a reproductive and developmental toxin.

No other county in California has such a high proportion of fumigant gases to overall pesticides applied.

Monitoring has shown that these gases travel for miles. Fumigation kills soil microbes and disrupts soil biology so that far less carbon sequestration — greenhouse gas reduction — takes place.

The solution is not mysterious: Organic/regenerative farms have healthy soils that teem with microbes and beneficial fungal networks, which convert carbon dioxide in the air to carbon in the soil. One 8-ton-per-acre application of quality compost can store 4 metric tons per acre per year of carbon — a potential reduction of 28,400 metric tons from just one strategy if applied to the 7,100 acres of organic agricultural land in the county. Other than refraining from pesticide use, compost application is one of the first steps in converting conventional chemical land to organic.

Other techniques — hedgerows, shelterbelts, conservation strips, mulching, cover crops — add to carbon-storage capacity in healthy soils. Soil that is pesticide-free provides multiple additional benefits. These metrics should be factored into DPR’s plan to progress toward sustainable pest management — and into Santa Cruz County’s climate action plan — along with the enormous carbon-storage capacity of healthy, functioning wetlands.

In the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, 67 farms, greenhouses and nurseries are within a quarter-mile of our schools. Sixteen growers are organic, while 50 growers are conventional, using synthetic chemicals. Conventional berry farms within a quarter-mile of schools use the carcinogenic fumigant 1,3-D, which has been banned in 34 countries.

Students hold signs at an Oct. 30 California Department of Pesticide Regulation hearing in Watsonville

California boasts the strictest pesticide regulations in the world, yet it allows 133 chemicals that the European Union has either banned or not registered for use. The European Union just voted to eliminate 50% of all pesticides by 2030, and 65% of restricted/hazardous pesticides by that date.

Why can’t we in California follow this lead?

California needs to go even further and convert to organic/regenerative agriculture.

Instead of using the words “organic” and “regenerative,” the plan refers to sustainable pest management” (SPM) and offers a plan to reduce California’s dependence on toxic pesticides very gradually, while endeavoring to maintain yields and profits.

California Certified Organic Farmers CEO Kelly Damewood spoke at the Oct. 30 meeting and pointed out that we already have defined, certified and implemented SPM — it’s what has been known for 50 years as “certified organic.”

We owe it to our kids and to their kids to create an organic/regenerative future.

Woody Rehanek and grandson Baz.
Woody Rehanek and grandson Baz. Credit: Via Woody Rehanek

I have three friends and neighbors with Parkinson’s disease. They all live near me in Bay Village, a senior community in northeast Watsonville that sits next to 70 acres of conventional-chemical raspberries. Research links organophosphates to accelerating the progression of Parkinson’s. Malathion, an organophosphate, is used in berries to kill fruit flies in fields bordering our neighborhood and lining the walking trail along the levee.

As my neighbors gradually lose fine and gross motor skills, including the capacity to speak, I wonder why the hidden costs and collateral damage of pesticides to human and environmental health are routinely ignored. And why do we not actively factor carbon sequestration into the greenhouse gas reduction equation in our county?

Woody Rehanek was a farmworker in Washington state for 18 years and a special education teacher in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District for 18 years. He is a member of Safe Ag Safe Schools and a founding member of CORA (Campaign for Organic and Regenerative Agriculture). His previous Community Voices opinion piece appeared in Lookout in October.