Farmers share varied views on mosquito control


For the Gazette
Published: 8/19/2021 8:47:34 PM

NORTHAMPTON — After the state recently denied nine Pioneer Valley towns’ applications to opt-out of aerial mosquito spraying, farmers are expressing mixed views about pesticide use to deter the spread of diseases like Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE).

Some farmers, like Brad Mitchell, the executive director of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF), are glad to have aerial spraying as a last resort.

“There’s never just one way to prevent EEE,” Mitchell said. “There are lots of different things you can do. But when the risk is bad, adulticide is part of that.”

Adulticides are insecticides used by mosquito control programs to kill adult mosquitoes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Farmers are in a unique position. They face an increased risk of getting sick from a mosquito bite, simply because they work outside.

“EEE outbreaks usually happen in late August or early September, and that also happens to be the time when most farmers are harvesting their crops,” Mitchell said. “Most of our farmers are outside for 12 to 15 hours a day at that time.”

Meg Jennings, a farmer based in Amherst and a member of the MFBF, shares a similar concern.

“I’m outside every day before the sun is up and before it sets,” she said.

Jennings is glad to have aerial spraying as a safety net, should EEE become prominent in the area.

“I trust that, in Massachusetts, whatever they’re choosing to use is going to be safe,” she said. “I feel like the benefits of people and animals not getting sick speak for themselves.”

The state only resorts to aerial spraying when there is a “high risk of human disease over a large geographic area,” according to state environmental officials. EEE has yet to be detected in Massachusetts this year.

Mitchell said that some of the farmers in MFBF are also concerned about the effects of the pesticides on the environment, but that there’s less of a consensus.

Farmers who are usually the most opposed to aerial spraying are ones who consider themselves organic farmers but aren’t technically organic-certified, according to Mitchell. Those who are organic-certified are automatically removed from the spraying.

Not all organic farms opt to get certified, because of the challenges associated with it. “Certification is time-consuming and expensive,” Mitchell said.

Farms without an organic certification are included in the aerial spraying area. Ryan Karb, the general manager of Many Hands Farm Corps in Amherst, practices organic farming, but is not organic-certified.

“I don’t use organic methods or abstain from using pesticides because I think it will benefit me or my customers directly, I do it for the more diffuse benefits of preventing the degradation of natural resources and the environment,” Karb said. “I’m personally willing to accept risks to my health and the discomfort of mosquitoes if it means not contributing to a larger environmental problem that puts all of us at risk.”

Not substantially toxic

Massachusetts uses two chemicals when aerial spraying: Sumithrin and Piperonyl butoxide. According to Josh Bloom, director of chemical and pharmaceutical science at the American Council on Science and Health, these chemicals don’t pose an immediate danger.

“Sumithrin has extremely low toxicity with the exception of marine life (it should not be sprayed over bodies of water) and also cats,” Bloom wrote in an email to the Gazette. “In rats and mice, it is far less toxic than aspirin, caffeine, Valium, Tylenol.”

Piperonyl butoxide is even less toxic than Sumithrin, according to Bloom.

“Neither chemical has substantial toxicity, nor are they environmentally persistent,” Bloom wrote. “As far as pesticides go, I would give both high marks for safety.”

The debate over aerial spraying gained more attention after nine Pioneer Valley towns had their applications to opt-out of the state’s spraying program denied in July.

The choice for towns to opt out was only implemented a year earlier, in July of 2020, as part of the “Act to Mitigate Arbovirus in the Commonwealth.” Towns that applied to opt out had to submit a lengthy description of their own plan to control mosquito-borne diseases.

The denial of the applications spurred frustration in some areas. State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, sent a letter to the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, expressing her dissatisfaction with the denials.

All of the towns that had their applications denied were labeled a “moderate” risk level in the regional risk assessment category for mosquito-borne diseases.

“If the state was going to deny applications based on regional risk level it should have saved these towns the trouble of applying,” wrote Comerford in the email. “If the submitted alternative plans were deemed insufficient, they should allow towns to learn what standards EEA was looking for, and then be given a chance to amend their plans. We share the extreme frustration of our constituents.”

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