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Responsible use of pesticides depends in part on understanding where and when they’re used and their impacts on the environment. However, a key source of information on pesticide usage is being scaled back, which could leave scientists and the public in the dark. Just one example of research using data from the U.S. Geological Survey Pesticide National Synthesis Project is a 2023 study linking population declines in the bumble bee Bombus occidentalis to usage of neonicotinoid pesticides. (Photo by Casey Delphia, Ph.D., Montana State University)

By Maggie Douglas, Ph.D.

Imagine public health workers trying to manage the spread of disease without information on where infection rates are highest or how they are changing week-to-week. Or scientists and policymakers attempting to understand and mitigate climate change without monitoring the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This specter is all too real for those of us studying and managing pesticide use and its effects, who are facing the slow disappearance of a critical resource: the U.S. Geological Survey Pesticide National Synthesis Project.

For over a decade, this USGS program has published datasets, maps, and graphs describing the use of agricultural pesticides in U.S. states and counties on an annual basis back to 1992. At its most complete, the dataset reported hundreds of chemicals spanning pest targets (insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides) and covering virtually all U.S. cropland, making it the single most comprehensive description in the country of which pesticides are applied where and when. Even if you aren’t familiar with the name of the project, you may have seen one of their now-ubiquitous maps or graphs, which are frequently used in news stories.

However, in recent years, this invaluable resource has been reduced in size, scope, and detail, and more cuts are looming. Scientists in a variety of fields, including entomology, are concerned.

Pesticide Data is a Public Good

Basic information on pesticide use patterns is easy to take for granted, yet it is essential to sound science and policymaking on a diverse array of topics, including integrated pest management (IPM), wildlife conservation, water quality, and human health. The USGS Pesticide National Synthesis Project data have been used to understand how fungicides affect soybean yield and how spatial patterns of pesticide use lead to the evolution of resistance. It has been used to show that insecticide use is becoming less toxic to vertebrates like humans but more toxic to insects and other invertebrates. And it has facilitated ‘scaling up’ pollinator research, helping scientists identify which pesticides are associated with reduced crop pollination and bumble bee declines. In human health, researchers recently used the USGS data to link particular fumigants with pediatric and total cancer incidence in the western U.S. and to understand the implications of farmland fungicide use for treatment-resistant fungal disease. The deep scientific value of the dataset explains why more than 250 scientists recently signed a letter expressing their concern that it may be further diminished or lost entirely.

The USGS program has also become a central resource for education, outreach, and agricultural extension related to pesticides. More than a hundred organizations working on issues ranging from insect conservation to IPM to farmworker health recently signed a letter expressing their dismay about the degradation of the program, which they described as “one of the most vital tools for monitoring pesticide use and estimating water pollution nationwide.” The Entomological Society of America, meanwhile, has been in contact with Congress, federal agencies, and other societies regarding the issue.

The maps and graphs published by the USGS are frequently used in a wide array of venues to demonstrate how pesticide use varies in space and time. As just one example, Anders Huseth, Ph.D., assistant professor and extension specialist in entomology at North Carolina State University, uses the maps to help farmers understand how to prevent insecticide resistance and to communicate to IPM students how pesticide use varies across the U.S. landscape.

In recent years, the data available in the USGS Pesticide National Synthesis Project has been reduced, as these examples illustrate. Top row: The insecticide clothianidin is primarily used as a seed treatment. At left is the map showing the estimated use pattern in 2014, while at right is what the map looked like after seed treatments were no longer included in the dataset in 2015. Bottom row: The common insecticide bifenthrin is used in corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat, and fruits and vegetables, among other crops. The map at left shows its use pattern in 2018; as illustrated at right, this information was entirely absent after bifenthrin was dropped from the dataset in 2019. (Images downloaded from the USGS Pesticide National Synthesis Project by Maggie Douglas, Ph.D.)

Cutbacks Leave a Huge Gap

Unfortunately, the scaling back of the USGS program has radically reduced its value to the scientific community, educators, diverse organizations, and the public—and further cuts are in progress.

In 2015, the dataset stopped including seed-applied pesticides, one of the most widespread methods of application, and one that is not reported anywhere else. In 2019, the scope narrowed further to track only 72 pesticides, reducing the number of tracked chemicals by roughly 80 percent and the amount applied by 40 percent. Recently, the agency announced that, after 2024, the data will only be updated every five years, a significant lag given how quickly the pest management landscape changes.

The reasons for the cutbacks are still not entirely clear. Funding constraints are an obvious hypothesis but do not seem to be the full explanation. The data at the heart of the program come from farmer surveys administered by a private research firm, which are then purchased and processed by USGS into the dataset it provides. Public records show that the raw data cost USGS no more than $150,000 per year at its height, a tiny fraction of the agency’s current $1.7 billion annual budget and a modest price tag for this invaluable information.

Whatever the underlying reasons, these losses of pesticide usage data leave scientists and the public in the dark.

What You Can Do

No matter your perspective or role, you can speak your mind about the value of Pesticide National Synthesis Project:

  1. Contact your Congressional representatives. Encourage them to write a letter to USGS requesting an explanation for the cutbacks and expressing support for restoring the program. (For guidance, see this shared document with talking points and Congressional contact info.)
  2. If you use the Pesticide National Synthesis Project maps, graphs, or data in your work, please fill out this brief survey by July 3. Responses will aid in demonstrating the value of the program and what stands to be lost if it is not reinstated.
  3. Spread the word. Contact the organizations you belong to and encourage them to engage in support of the Pesticide National Synthesis Project. Many organizations have policy arms that may be in a good position to advocate for the program.

Thank you for speaking out to restore this essential pesticide database!

Maggie Douglas, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of environmental science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Email: douglasm@dickinson.edu.

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