The fight for a chlorpyrifos-free food system and EPA's rejection of opposition to the ban

Avoiding harmful insecticides like chlorpyrifos (both for their own health and the health of farmworkers, who are directly exposed to these toxins in the fields) is one of the main reasons many consumers switch to organic food, which does not allow the use of synthetic, toxic pesticides. Because organic products cannot use the synthetic pesticides or fertilizers that many conventional crops rely on, organic systems have lower pesticide residues, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and are better for water quality. Research also shows that organic production boosts farmworker livelihoods and decreases poverty in rural areas.  

For years, the Organic Trade Association and its members and allies have raised the alarm over a severe lack of governmental oversight when it comes to dangerous chemicals and pesticides in the U.S. food system. The battle over chlorpyrifos, a pesticide with deadly impacts on both environmental and human health, has been a particularly long and contentious one. The chemical has been used in the U.S. since 1965, but was banned from use in residential areas over 20 years ago in 2000, due to the plethora of research showing human harm. Due to the influence of powerful lobbyists, however, chlorpyrifos was still allowed for agricultural use until 2021. In February, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) won what is hopefully the last battle over chlorpyrifos after denying all objections, hearings, and requests to stay the final rule revoking all tolerances. 

Before the EPA stepped in, chlorpyrifos was a widely used insecticide - an estimated 6 million pounds of the chemical was used annually across some 10 million US acres of fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts and wheat. At one point, it was even cited by the EPA as the most commonly used conventional insecticide in the US. Even though some conventional agriculture lobbyists repeatedly referred to as “low risk,” the science has shown that chlorpyrifos can lead to serious complications for humans, wildlife, and the environment. 

Acute exposure to chlorpyrifos can cause respiratory failure and death in humans; even exposure to lower doses is associated with multiple health risks, which are especially concerning for children. Several studies, for example, have linked prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides with respiratory and brain development issues, as well as with autism. Chlorpyrifos is also toxic to wildlife, including fish and aquatic insects, and has been shown to cause reproductive issues in both birds and mammals. The impacts of chlorpyrifos contamination aren’t limited just to crops, either. A study out of Emory University in collaboration with The Organic Center, for example, showed that while nearly 60% of conventional milk samples had residues of chlorpyrifos, organic milk tested clean. 

The Fight for a Chlorpyrifos-Free Food System 

  • 2015, a court order revoked all tolerances for chlorpyrifos.  

  • 2016, the EPA proposed a ban on chlorpyrifos, noting “sufficient evidence” that – even at low levels – exposure to chlorpyrifos could cause negative neurodevelopmental effects in children. 

  • 2017, despite the overwhelming evidence of harm, agrochemical companies convinced the EPA, under Administrator Scott Pruitt, to reverse its decision to ban chlorpyrifos. 

  • 2018, another court order to ban the insecticide was thwarted following agrochemical outreach that resulted in an appealed to the decision by the Trump administration. 

  • 2021, EPA issued a final rule announcing it would stop the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos on all food to better protect human health, particularly that of children and farmworkers. 

  • 2022, conventional agriculture lobbyists sued to try and overturn EPA’s 2021 final rule, but EPA ultimately denied to hear their objections.  

Organic has shown that we can do good business while doing good. Doing good means agriculture fighting for regulations that protect people and the planet, not trying to derail them. Doing good means leveraging the upcoming Farm Bill to modernize agriculture while also increasing accountability through legislation like the Continuous Improvement & Accountability in Organic (CIAO) Standards Act. Doing good means shopping your values and advocating for them in the policy arena. We can say no to chlorpyrifos, say yes to organic and regenerative agriculture systems, and feed the world without poisoning the planet. 


Banner Photo Credit: Jake Gard;