Agricultural Chemicals:

USDA Could Enhance Pesticide and Fertilizer Usage Data, Improve Outreach, and Better Leverage Resources

GAO-11-37: Published: Nov 4, 2010. Publicly Released: Dec 6, 2010.

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The use of pesticides and fertilizers contributes to U.S. agricultural productivity and helps ensure a generally stable, plentiful, and inexpensive food supply. However, these chemicals may also harm human health, water quality, and food safety. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) collects, analyzes, and disseminates Agricultural Chemical Usage (ACU) data to meet regulatory, business, and other informational needs. In fiscal years 2007 through 2009, NASS substantially scaled back the ACU program before restoring it in 2010. GAO was asked to examine (1) what factors NASS considered in reducing the ACU program; (2) how ACU data users were affected by the temporary cutback, and their views on the data's quality and usefulness; and (3) the extent to which agricultural pesticide and fertilizer usage data are available from sources other than NASS. GAO reviewed relevant NASS documents and interviewed NASS officials as well as 25 selected ACU data users.

Operating under the constraints of a continuing resolution in fiscal year 2007, NASS considered a number of factors in reducing the ACU data program. These factors included NASS's assessment that there would be no impact on the agricultural commodities market and that chemical usage data were available from other sources. However, the agency did not consult ACU data users in its decision making or gauge the potential impact of the program's cutback on users' regulatory, business, and other needs for the data. Federal guidance directs agencies managing information to consult, and consider the effects of decisions on, data users, yet NASS officials told GAO they did not formally communicate with users until the 2007 budget was finalized. NASS officials also said that they had limited information on who used ACU data and why, which hampered the agency's ability to gauge the impact of the program's reduction. The ACU data users GAO interviewed said they generally disagreed with NASS's decision factors because they perceived the factors to be irrelevant or misapplied to the ACU program. Most users told GAO they relied on older ACU data during the program's reduction, which hindered their ability to make informed decisions because agricultural chemical use can change from year to year due to the emergence of new pests, weather variations, changing market conditions, and other factors. All 25 users also said they regard ACU data to be high quality and generally useful for their purposes, but they identified some areas for enhancing the data. Specifically, nearly all users said the ACU data would be even more useful if the data were disseminated more frequently, in greater geographic detail, or with additional data elements. Toward that end, NASS has entered into cooperative agreements with some states to provide additional ACU data, but the agency's ability to enter into such agreements may not be widely known by state agency officials due to limited outreach by NASS. In addition, ACU reports, data tools, and related resources on NASS's Web site are difficult to locate, and the online data tools are incomplete, which hampers users' ability to access and use ACU data. While NASS has several mechanisms to gather input from its data users, such as general comment forms on NASS's Web site, most users indicated these mechanisms are not effective in ensuring ACU data continue to meet their needs. Agricultural pesticide and fertilizer usage data are also available through several state, private, and other sources. These data sources vary in their cost, geographic and crop coverage, level of detail, and other attributes. While many ACU data users reported that they rely on other sources to supplement NASS's data, nearly all emphasized that other sources do not replace ACU data. These users said, and GAO found, that NASS is the only source of publicly available data reflecting the actual application of pesticides and fertilizers on a wide array of crops on a national scale. However, NASS has not systematically identified and evaluated other publicly available data sources. As a result, the agency does not have assurance that it is fully leveraging limited government resources, maximizing efficiencies, and minimizing potential overlap in its ACU data collection. GAO recommends, among other things, that NASS establish a formal mechanism to identify and consult ACU data users on an ongoing basis and that NASS identify and evaluate other publicly available agricultural chemical usage data sources to better leverage resources and reduce potential overlap. USDA agreed with GAO's recommendations and noted specific actions it will take to implement them.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve NASS's ability to manage the ACU data program effectively and ensure that it continues to meet users' needs, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of NASS to improve users' ability to access and use ACU data on NASS's Web site by making it easier to find ACU reports, data tools, and related resources, and by updating ACU data tools on a timely basis.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To improve NASS's ability to manage the ACU data program effectively and ensure that it continues to meet users' needs, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of NASS to strengthen outreach to state agencies regarding NASS's ability to enter into reimbursable cooperative agreements that would maximize state and federal resources, minimize costs, and enhance ACU data's usefulness to state officials.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To improve NASS's ability to manage the ACU data program effectively and ensure that it continues to meet users' needs, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of NASS to establish a formal mechanism to identify and consult ACU data users on an ongoing basis to ensure ACU data continue to meet users' informational needs and to consider the effects of potential program changes on users, weighing the costs and benefits of those changes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To improve NASS's ability to manage the ACU data program effectively and ensure that it continues to meet users' needs, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of NASS to develop a process to systematically identify and evaluate other agricultural pesticide and fertilizer usage data sources that are publicly available on an ongoing basis to better leverage resources and reduce areas of potential overlap with ACU data collection.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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