Farmers have long-established practices for combating pests, diseases and weeds. They typically lean on years of experience, in addition to approved pesticides and herbicides proven to work for their particular crops. But the nascent U.S. hemp industry lacks similar tribal knowledge and regulatory guidance on these treatments to ensure healthy, productive crops.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently took a step toward approving pesticide applications for hemp. On Aug. 21, the EPA announced it was seeking public comment on 10 applications from pesticide manufacturers to use existing pesticides on hemp.
The move would provide clarity to growers on which treatments they can use on their crops. Currently, there are no EPA-registered pesticides for hemp production. The comment period ends on Sept. 23. The EPA expects to issue its decision on the products before the end of the year so growers can “make informed purchasing choices for the upcoming growing season,” according to an EPA news release.
The availability of approved pesticides for hemp is a critical step for the industry as new growers enter the market. Without approved products on the market, hemp growers risk losing crops to disease and facing lawsuits from unintended use of pesticides.
“It’s going to help the industry to have something to work from than having to make illegal applications,” says Fred Whitford, director of Purdue University’s Pesticide Programs and clinical engagement professor in the College of Agriculture.
Whitford co-authored a research paper published in 2018 about the lack of clear federal guidelines on the use of pesticides on cannabis crops. The paper notes that there are “no pesticides labeled for industrial hemp production in the U.S.” and that there are only a few registered pesticides in use throughout Europe, where hemp production has been legal for decades.
EPA approval would help clarify which pesticides are appropriate for different uses of hemp. For instance, some pesticides may be safe for products that aren’t ingested, such as fiber.
But hemp produced for human consumption, inhalation or topical ointments could be problematic if growers used a pesticide that was only approved for fiber production, says Janna Beckerman, one of the report’s co-authors and professor and extension plant pathologist at Purdue’s Botany and Plant Pathology Department.
“The end use has lot to do with which pesticides are used,” Beckerman says. “And that gets down to liability.”
The use of pesticides on a crop that’s not listed on the product’s label is illegal and carries potential fines, imprisonment and crop confiscation, according to the Purdue report.
Also, growers need access to effective pest and disease treatments as researchers discover new problems impacting crop production.
“We’ve identified new pathogens and are in the process of identifying other new pathogens that haven’t been described as infecting cannabis or at least not described in this country in some instances,” Beckerman says. “Sometimes the descriptions are inaccurate or misnamed, so that’s what some of my research is doing.”
Need for More Education
The lack of knowledge about hemp pesticides also highlights another issue for new entrants into the market. Many growers are unaware of the existing laws or plant health issues that their crops may be exposed to.
Hemp is similar to other traditional crops when it comes to pest and disease issues, Whitford says. A lack of available labor and ineffective organic solutions are two hurdles the industry must overcome.
“We’re talking about production fields,” he says. “We’re not talking about Fred and Joanne, the person who has a half-acre or a quarter-acre. We’re talking about people who will have to grow this stuff to meet minimal standards in this state.”
But many people entering the hemp industry don’t have the agricultural background necessary to understand some of these basic principles, according to Whitford.
“Understand that if you want to play like a farmer, you better know some farm facts, and many of your hemp growers see money, and I understand; we all do,” Whitford says. “But it’s important that they understand that right now they have limited tools.”
Whitford says he’s not seeing enough growers taking advantage of agricultural schools and extensions to increase their knowledge.
“They don’t know we exist,” Whitford says. “They don’t know the system.”