The Legacy of PFAS in Agriculture

01/28/2022

The chemicals known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) continue to come to light as contaminants in agriculture. Maine farms, conventional and organic, are increasingly testing water, soil and crops to determine if PFAS contamination exists. As we wrote in a previous blog post, these forever chemicals persist in the environment decades after they were used and this problem is not specific to Maine. Maine farmers, however, are at the forefront of testing and actively seeking to understand and address this issue. We are all still just beginning to understand the impact that a legacy of PFAS contamination in agriculture may have and are working closely with impacted growers to offer support.

As eaters we’re concerned about the food safety implications of these discoveries and are left with many of the same questions we’re hearing from the community. How could this happen? How do I protect myself and my family? What is the risk of eating local food? While much remains uncertain, this post explores the answers that we have at this point to these questions.

How could this happen?

PFAS  have been widely used since the 1950s in products ranging from food packaging to fire fighting foam. PFAS have recently been recognized as contaminants in agriculture and are believed to largely be entering soil through the application of biosolids, industrial sludges and ashes, which may contain these compounds that break down very little over decades, or longer.

For decades PFAS containing sludges were marketed to farmers as a safe and cost effective source of fertilization. While biosolids have never been permitted in USDA organic production, land that is in production now, organic and conventional, may be contaminated without the knowledge of the current landowner, or the organic certifier of the operation.

How can a farm be certified organic if they have PFAS contamination?

Organic agriculture is based on the growing practices of the farmer and recent history of the land, with the organic standards requiring a 36-month transition period from conventional land management to organic. This means the land is managed without prohibited substances for three years prior to the harvest of an organic crop. This standard, along with the requirements of organic production, greatly lessen chances of exposure to conventional pesticides, as intended. As we now know, this is not necessarily the case with “forever chemicals” such as PFAS. While this may be particularly discouraging for consumers who have sought out organic foods to minimize their exposure to all synthetic chemicals, this is a much larger food safety issue affecting all agricultural products and needing federal action immediately to address any food safety risk across the board. 

How do I protect myself and my family?

At this time there is no reason to believe that food grown in Maine, conventional or organic, is at any higher risk for PFAS contamination than products grown elsewhere. For myriad reasons, supporting local agriculture remains as important now as ever. 

The State of Maine is identifying the highest risk areas in terms of prior applications and will be working through testing in those locations. This work is ongoing and MOFGA’s Farmer Programs staff will continue to work with producers to understand and adapt as needed to any testing results of concern. Without federal requirements regarding food safety thresholds for products, the State has jurisdiction in Maine to develop levels considered to be safe. MOFGA does not have jurisdiction to set PFAS screening levels different than the state or federal agencies may set.

PFAS are everywhere. Their presence in agriculture is just beginning to be understood, but for many, everyday exposure is present in many items, including:  grease resistant papers and food packaging like pizza boxes, non-stick cookware, water repellent clothing like rain jackets and boots, stain resistant coatings, various personal care products, paints and varnishes, and more. Each of us can take action now to evaluate what products we use everyday that could be contributing to ongoing exposure and production of these products. Personal decisions are not enough. We also need to demand immediate action from the federal government and congressional leaders.

While many foods do not yet have an established safety screening threshold, studies indicate that PFAS is less likely to accumulate in the fruit or grain of plants. Eating food that contains PFAS does not represent an immediate health risk; these chemicals represent a long-term exposure concern rather than a single exposure risk. This video from Maine’s Agricultural Trades Show describes the much lower transfer factors to grains and fruits at about the one hour mark.

What is the risk of eating local organic food?

At this time there is no reason to believe that PFAS are more prevalent in local organic food than in food grown elsewhere. In Maine, farms have been responsive to this issue and are at the forefront of seeking out testing. MOFGA is working with farms in many ways including:

  • ​​Providing individual consultation with concerned farmers to help them understand their risk and navigate available resources.
  • Working collaboratively with Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, Maine CDC Toxicology, and University of Maine Cooperative Extension to better understand long-term PFAS uptake by forage. 
  • Leading a cohort of professionals who are developing support for farms, including piloting a free private testing and consultation program, developing a FAQ brochure, and creating public decision-making guidance related to testing, which will be released in 2022.
  • Developing and managing an emergency testing fund with Maine Farmland Trust, created to support affected dairy farms which might need to pay for soil tests to access the federal Dairy Indemnity Payment Program. We’re currently working to expand the fund beyond dairy farms.

What testing is required in organic certification?

The organic certification process is focused on the actions a farm takes to comply with the organic standards that are required as part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP). MOFGA Certification Services, as a USDA accredited certification agency, provides oversight, inspection and some testing to ensure compliance with the national standards. As part of the terms of accreditation, MOFGA Certification Services cannot go above and beyond these standards, but as an organization who has been involved in certification for decades we are careful and thoughtful about upholding the highest standards.

We currently cannot require testing for PFAS as a potential contaminant. When the state has developed screening thresholds for food items, MOFGA Certification Services can take action to ensure that certified farms do not do not sell adulterated products.

We annually test 5% of our producers for synthetic pesticides that are not permitted in organic production. We perform this assessment both on risk of contamination and on a random basis each year. In compliance with the organic standards we also perform unannounced inspections on at least 5% of our operations each year, as an added level of assurance regarding use of products not permitted in organic production. 

We have raised the issue of PFAS at the National Organic Standards Board and are hopeful that action will be taken soon to incorporate language into the certification standards addressing this potential contamination.

Many of us are understandably angry that large corporations have created this problem that the rest of us are now faced with dealing with, and that federal oversight has allowed these chemicals to go unchecked and unregulated. At this time there are no current federal thresholds for PFAS contamination in food crops, and Maine has only set thresholds for a few food items, relatively recently. Action is urgently needed at the federal level to better understand the scope of contamination across the country, establish safety standards, and immediately restrict the production and disposal of these forever chemicals. Click here to send a letter to FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock demanding action.

We are just beginning to understand the prevalence of PFAS on land and in water, including former and current agricultural land across the state. As with other environmental justice issues this contamination has not been evenly distributed across communities. We are currently asking for Mainers to take action requiring that leachate from the Juniper Ridge Landfill be pretreated for PFAS as the runoff from this site disproportionately affects the Penobscot Nation. This work will continue to evolve and adapt as we better understand the situation and work collaboratively on creative solutions. Sign up for our weekly email newsletter to stay up to date on all of MOFGA’s work.

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