Pro- and anti-glyphosate companies and organizations lined up to praise — or bash — the active ingredient in the most widely applied herbicide in the world, in comments submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency last week.

The subject was a Proposed Interim Decision (PID) issued by EPA in May, a critical step in the multiyear process to re-register the herbicide.

In general, defenders of the product, used in Roundup, Ranger Pro and other formulations, stressed the chemical’s value to growers and findings by regulatory bodies around the world that “continue to support the safety of glyphosate-based products when used as directed and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic,” as Ty Vaughn, global regulatory lead for Bayer, said in comments submitted to EPA.

Detractors, however, pointed to analyses, conducted since EPA issued its last carcinogenicity study in December 2017, identifying cancer risks associated with exposure to glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicide products.

In its PID, EPA reaffirmed an earlier conclusion that glyphosate is not likely to cause cancer but proposed a few changes to its label language. Applicators would not be allowed to spray during temperature inversions. For aerial applications, spraying could not take place when wind speeds exceed 15 mph at the application site. For both ground and aerial applications, applicators would have to use “fine” or coarser droplets as indicated in nozzle manufacturers’ catalogs.

The agency’s deliberations come as glyphosate continues to be the subject of controversy in the U.S. and elsewhere. Three court cases have resulted in awards totaling more than $80 million in punitive damages, after juries found enough evidence to connect Roundup exposure to their non-Hodgkin lymphoma. And Germany recently decided to ban glyphosate by the end of 2023.

The Joint Glyphosate Task Force, whose 20-plus members all have registrations for technical grade glyphosate, said in its comments it’s “essential” that U.S. farmers be able to continue to use glyphosate.

“It is a critical component in maintaining economic and environmental sustainability in agriculture,” the JGTF said. “Adoption of glyphosate-tolerant cropping systems is associated with an increased adoptability of conservation tillage, resulting in a number of benefits: reduced soil erosion, improved soil and water quality and lower carbon dioxide emissions.”

Bayer, which bought Monsanto last year, inheriting both glyphosate and its attendant lawsuits, said glyphosate is “critical to maintain environmental sustainability in agriculture” and also has helped farmers generate off-farm income because of reduced labor requirements to grow crops. In addition, it’s cost-effective, the company said, citing an economic analysis of highway median control that showed glyphosate was “275% less expensive than alternative methods that included multiple mowing events and alternative herbicides.”

On the issue of the chemical’s toxicity, Bayer said industry data in reviews by regulatory authorities show glyphosate is safe to use as directed. “In evaluations spanning four decades, the overwhelming conclusion of experts worldwide has been that glyphosate, when used per label directions, does not present an unreasonable risk of adverse effects to humans, wildlife or the environment.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council said in its comments that since EPA issued its most recent paper on glyphosate carcinogenicity in December 2017, there have been “some new and updated scientific studies published, as well as two more recent meta-analyses that include the new studies. These all identify cancer risks associated with exposure to glyphosate and [glyphosate-based herbicide] products.”

NRDC also said EPA’s label changes are inadequate to protect monarch butterflies. The environmental group said EPA’s own spray drift analysis suggests the need for buffers of up to 620 feet for aerial application and up to 157 feet for ground application.

“Despite these findings, the EPA’s drift mitigation measures only make specifications to boom height, application height and droplet size, but they do not call for ANY buffer distance,” NRDC said.

The JGTF supported the new label language. “By applying good agricultural practices and by using the appropriate spray drift mitigation approaches as proposed …, off-target drift that may encounter monarch butterfly breeding or foraging habitat should be avoidable,” the task force said.

EPA plans to have a proposed decision ready by the second quarter of the federal fiscal year — between Jan. 1 and March 31, 2020.

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