By Blake Hurst

It must be wearing to man the ramparts in the final months of the Obama administration. So many regulations to write; so many groups to offend; so much to accomplish under the cover provided by the black hole of public attention that is Donald Trump. 

Many of these decisions will be overturned by the courts, as a recent unanimous Supreme Court decision reversing President Obama’s policy on the Clean Water Act proved. Some will be reversed by the next administration, but the sheer volume of regulations, rules, and edicts promulgated in the waning days of Obama will change the way we live more than previous administrations could ever have imagined. Beltway shrinks can plan on a busy few years as they deal with former staffers suffering from fatigue and stress-related disorders as Obama veterans deal with the hangover from their blitzkrieg against the economy, science, and common sense.

A recent EPA draft report on the ubiquitous corn herbicide atrazine has discovered heretofore unknown risks to the environment from the herbicide, which has been used safely by farmers for a half of a century. Over 7,000 studies have been done on the chemical, and as recently as 2012 an EPA Scientific Advisory Panel found the compound safe. That’s the third panel of the nation’s leading scientists to approve the use of atrazine since 2006.

In fact, the 2012 panel study estimated that atrazine levels allowed by the EPA in the aquatic environment could be increased by a factor of six without harm. Now, the EPA report says that the present allowable levels in the environment are 62 times too high for fish. That’s a big change in four years, for a compound that has been studied since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. No breathtaking new knowledge has been unearthed in the latest review: a few studies have been included that were discounted by the 2012 panel, and a few studies used in 2012 were dropped for the draft report.

Among the studies included in the latest atrazine risk assessment was research done by University of California scientist Tyrone Hayes. Dr. Hayes’ research and his career have long been in the news. Hayes has done numerous studies linking atrazine to reproductive changes in frogs.

Hayes’ relations with Syngenta, the manufacturer of atrazine, have been strained. Or deeply, deeply weird, depending upon your perspective. Hayes has accused Syngenta employees of following him around, hacking his emails, and threatening his family. He has offered no proof of these accusations, but Syngenta released a series of threatening emails from Hayes to Syngenta employees. 

Field research studies have failed to find any correlation with atrazine use and the feminized frogs (or as Hayes would have it, “gay” frogs) that appeared in Hayes’ laboratory. In the past, the EPA has called his work methodologically flawed, studies attempting to replicate his results have been unsuccessful, and twice the EPA has reported that Hayes refused to share his data.   

If the draft report is unchanged, there is every chance that atrazine will eventually be pulled from the market. Here’s what it means to my family. Our farm in Missouri is the typical corn and soybean farm that carpets the Midwest. Studies have estimated anywhere from a $30 to $60 loss per acre without atrazine. My best guess would be on the lower end of that range. On our multi-family farm, a hit of nearly $100,000 per year, every year. 

We’ve been using no-till farming for a generation, which cuts soil erosion by thousands of tons per year on our place. We’ll still use no-till farming without atrazine, but rescue tillage will be necessary on at least some of our acres each year. The cumulative effect of less effective weed control methods may mean that our 30-year experience with the most ecologically-friendly way of crop farming in the rolling hills here in Northwest Missouri will come to an end. Not only that, but atrazine allows us to rotate chemical methods of action from year to year: without it, we’ll face increased pressure from herbicide-resistant weeds.

The two main crops where atrazine is applied are corn and sorghum, which are planted on nearly 100 million acres across the U.S. Somewhere between one-third and one-half of those acres have the chemical applied. If our farm is any indication, the change in the risk assessment of atrazine will end up with a price tag to U.S. agriculture of well over $1 billion dollars per year. For perspective, total farm income this year is estimated at around 54 billion dollars.  

It’s been a busy year at the EPA, which has also had a couple of other products important to farmers in their cross hairs. The first, Chlorpyrifos, is in the process of having its registration pulled. Not incidentally, the decision was made after environmental groups generated 80,000 comments during a recent comment period. 

The second product, flubendiamide, recently lost its registration. Grower groups and the chemical’s maker complained that the EPA had changed the scientific method used to evaluate the chemical during the time the registration was being considered. The EPA “acknowledged the timing of its shift was unfortunate but necessary due to internal agency dynamics.”  Well, that will certainly be of comfort to farmers who lose their crops, knowing their sacrifice was necessary to satisfy internal EPA dynamics.  

The big kahuna in the chemical wars is glyphosate. As the scientific case has been emphatically made for the safety of GMOs, opponents of GMOs have shifted their sights to glyphosate, hoping to end the use of the most popular GMO crops through the back door. 

Glyphosate – sold under the trade name Roundup by Monsanto - is the most popular herbicide used with herbicide-resistant crops developed through genetic engineering. The science is no friendlier here, as glyphosate is a safe and effective herbicide. EPA recently posted on its website a glyphosate review, absolving the widely used chemical of causing cancer.

Although the study was marked “final” the agency pulled the study from its website, claiming it was posted prematurely and by mistake. The same thing happened with the atrazine study, which after being posted in April, reappeared within weeks without change. It’s not clear why the glyphosate study hasn’t been reposted, although perhaps not coincidentally, glyphosate has been in the news across the Atlantic, where the European Union is examining whether or not to pull approval for glyphosate after the IARC, or International Agency for Research on Cancer, listed the herbicide as a carcinogen.

The EU recently refused to allow an 18-month delay in the glyphosate decision to allow further study. There is little doubt that European farmers are about to lose a safe and effective weed killer. 

The IARC’s determination should have been no surprise to anyone, since of the over 800 compounds studied by the agency and listed on their website, only one has been found to be absolutely free of cancer risk. The World Health Organization and every other leading health and science organization has found glyphosate perfectly safe. Critics of the EPA suspect that the timing here is not a coincidence and the EPA is attempting to influence the European decision. Or, as the Lily Tomlin once said, “I try to be cynical, but I can't keep up." 

Irony is lost on activists trying to outlaw chemicals. All of the chemicals in the EPA crosshairs are long off patent and are priced at very competitive levels because there are many companies either producing the compounds or who could easily ramp up production. To put it bluntly, chemical firms will be better off if the EPA continues to ban older chemicals and farmers are forced to use newer chemicals with patent protection and much higher prices. 

The only loser here is farmers who’ll lose access to cheap, dependable compounds and consumers who expect plentiful food at reasonable prices. Farmers are going to continue to control pests with pesticides. We could not possibly control weeds by pulling them by hand. Environmental groups and the EPA are actually benefitting large chemical companies while hammering small independent farmers.  

It is almost impossible to convince the public of the safety and importance of “chemicals” called atrazine and glyphosate, let alone chlorpyrifos. Chemicals are seen by the public as bad, the names of those chemicals don’t fall trippingly off the tongue, and they are the antithesis of trendy consumer terms like “natural” and “local.” 

The political appointees manning the Obama EPA know these things, and the ability of activists to gin up 80,000 comments is a pretty good indication of the direction of the political winds. If one side shows pictures of children who may be at risk from scary-sounding chemicals while the other talks about the difficulties of controlling water hemp and wild sunflowers, there’s little doubt about who is likely to win this argument. 

The only hope is to get the science right and let the chips fall where they may. U.S. regulatory agencies have historically been good at following the science in these kind of decisions. Hopefully, the facts won’t be sacrificed for praise from activist groups full of people who have never lost their crops to weeds or bugs or missed a meal.

About the author: Blake Hurst is a third-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau board of directors.


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