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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASS has taken a number of actions to identify and consult agricultural chemical usage (ACU) data users on an ongoing basis to ensure the data continue to meet their informational needs and to weigh the effects of potential program changes to those users. For example, in June 2011, NASS created an online feedback tool for users to submit comments and suggestions regarding ACU data. NASS also consulted an outside firm to help it better understand and serve its data users with easy-to-understand information; as a result of this research and other user feedback, NASS publishes "highlights" fact sheets, data tables, methodological information, and news releases at the same time as ACU data. In addition, NASS has continued its outreach to data users through annual meetings covering all of the agency's data programs, including ACU, as well as ACU-specific meetings, done at least annually, with major users of these data to ensure the data continue to meet their needs. NASS officials stated that every year, when NASS gets its budget, the agency considers changes to all its data programs, including ACU, to save costs but still meet users' needs. To accommodate both goals, NASS has occasionally made changes to the frequency of the ACU surveys or the rotation of the commodities surveyed--for example, surveying chemical use on a specific commodity every 2 or 3 years instead of eliminating the data collection altogether. Lastly, NASS has continued to publish Federal Register notices to inform the public of any planned changes to the ACU data program and to receive and publish users' comments.

    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

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASS has taken steps to strengthen its outreach to state agencies regarding NASS's ability to enter into reimbursable cooperative agreements. According to NASS officials, the intent of these cooperative agreements is to maximize state and federal resources, minimize costs, and enhance ACU data's usefulness to state officials. NASS officials said that they have always had a close relationship with state departments of agriculture and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, meeting with them regularly. Nonetheless, NASS officials stated that when NASS's field structure was reorganized in 2012, the agency renewed memoranda of understanding with the 50 states, which helped heighten awareness of the cooperative agreement mechanism. According to NASS officials, at that time the agency also emphasized the intent to minimize duplication of efforts in data collection and broaden cooperative research with states. In addition, NASS has developed a promotional brochure on the ACU program that, in part, highlights the availability of reimbursable cooperative agreements for states "[t]o provide chemical use data more frequently, with more geographic detail, or with additional [data] elements." The brochure also states, "In other states, NASS leverages its resources by incorporating chemical use data that state agencies collect themselves; Arizona and California are examples. To maximize public benefits, reduce overlap, and minimize federal and state costs, NASS seeks to develop additional partnerships that can enhance chemical use data." In August 2015, NASS officials stated that the agency currently has 15 cooperative agreements in place with 11 states regarding ACU data; this is a significant increase since our report, in which we found that NASS had such agreements with 4 states from fiscal years 2006 through 2010.

    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

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASS has taken several actions to improve users' ability to access and use ACU data on NASS's website by making it easier to find ACU reports, data tools, and related resources, and by updating ACU data tools on a timely basis. Specifically, in fiscal year 2012, NASS modified the links on its website to provide quicker access to ACU data, primarily through a database system called Quick Stats. The Quick Stats application provides users with the ability to search the data by subject or commodity, keyword, pre-defined queries, or their own unique queries. In addition, NASS has made two online tutorials available to aid the public's understanding of how to use the Quick Stats application. NASS also updates Quick Stats on a timely basis, on the day of the ACU data's release. Furthermore, simultaneously with the release of ACU data, NASS publishes "highlights" fact sheets that give data users a quick, easy-to-read overview of the newly released information. NASS also publishes news releases and short summaries of the methodology behind ACU data collection on the day of the data's release.

    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

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In March 2013, NASS provided us a copy of a table that it created in late 2012 to implement this recommendation. This table included information on chemical usage data collected by a variety of sources, including state agencies and other organizations, the crops covered, the frequency of data collection, and relevant websites where these data are reported. Earlier, in August 2012, NASS had advised us that it planned to compile this table and routinely update it to maximize the efficient use of taxpayer dollars by minimizing the potential for duplication in data collection. However, in August 2015, NASS officials said that they did not update this table in subsequent years. Instead, they said they viewed its creation as a one-time effort. They noted that in the course of regular business activities, including conducting surveys and interacting with ACU data users, the agency's staff are always alert for opportunities to leverage the data collection efforts of others to augment NASS's data collection and avoid unnecessary duplication. Nonetheless, without routinely updating this table as the agency originally planned, NASS still does not have a process to systematically identify, document, and evaluate other data sources that are publicly available to better leverage resources and reduce areas of potential overlap with ACU data collection.

    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

 

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