FOOD TECHNOLOGY

Translating Food Technology: Why do farmers use so much atrazine?

Why do farmers use so much atrazine?

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a 500-page draft report in June arguing the nation's second most popular weed killer poses risk to aquatic plants, fish and wildlife, farmer groups across the nation criticized the agency's call for increased limits on use of that pesticide, atrazine. The U.S. Corn Growers argue EPA's new recommendations are excessively cautionary, are based on science even the agency's own advisors argue is flawed, and contradict more than 7,000 previous scientific studies that have found atrazine safe. According to Decatur farmer and Corn Growers President Larry Mussack, the new EPA usage limits would cut average field application rates down to one cup per acre, a level that would make it virtually useless in controlling weeds in a large portion of the Corn Belt. EPA would thus effectively eliminate the pesticide from the market.

Right now, farmers apply an estimated 36,000 tons of the chemical in about 200 different registered products every year to kill and control weeds in corn, sorghum and other crops. Why do farmers like Mussack use so much atrazine?

  • Despite being used for almost 60 years in the United States, atrazine remains one of the most reliable herbicides on the market, especially in killing weeds that are resistant to other herbicides. Excessive weed populations in a crop like corn compete with the crop for water, nutrients and sunlight and can directly reduce the amount of crop harvested from a given amount of land.
  • It is cost-effective, particularly for conservation tillage, or fields that don't get the full plowing traditionally used in order to help protect the soil and water. Farmers can't just stop using weed-killers, so because atrazine is used on most of the country's corn acres, removing it from the market or severely limiting its use would mean changing to other, probably more expensive, alternatives. That means costs for farmers and food buyers would increase. A 2012 study reported by University of Chicago economists predicted farming without atrazine would add up to $59 per acre in productivity losses or additional production costs. While $59 per acre may not strike you as much, in a business that lives or dies on tight margins—just like retail grocers—that inavailability of atrazine could make the difference between making a profit or taking a loss. In some cases it could make a crop nonviable: A 2007 economic analysis in Kansas found that without atrazine, growing grain sorghum would be economically impossible.
  • It's versatile. Farmers would likely have to resort to more complicated herbicide mixtures because some of the alternative products don't control as wide a variety of weeds that atrazine does, at least not as effectively. The one atrazine product would have to be replaced by two or more different products to get the same weed control.

  • Atrazine has actualy allowed farmers to use less chemicals, because of that effective versatility. Banning atrazine will not lead to less herbicide use; it will likely lead to more, and more use of chemicals with even higher potential to impact the environment than atrazine.

  • In the bigger picture, use of atrazine actually improves the nation's water quality. Chemical weed killers like atrazine make no-till agriculture practical, and no-till farming dramatically lessens the amount of soil that washes away during storms, carrying the nutrients and sediments that clog streams and lakes. Estimates say no-till agriculture reduces soil erosion by as much as 90 percent when compared to heavy tillage. No-till farming practices made possible by herbicide use also create habitat for wildlife. One of the alternatives to atrazine, were it to be banned, would be to return to mechanical tilling. A 2013 study in Wisconsin, where state law limits atrazine use in some specific areas in order to protect against the possibility of groundwater contamination, limiting the use of atrazine caused farmers to begin plowing up formerly minimally or no-tilled acres, which can be assumed to increase soil erosion.
  • They view the reasons to stop using atrazine as based on alarmism. Evidence some environmental advocates see as clearly pointing out a need to stop using atrazine on farms, farmers and ag scientists see as taking a leap that low doses EPA found in water and soil somehow add up beyond the impact research studies have actually demonstrated. EPA's draft report has already been met with calls for an outright ban, arguing the fact the chemical can make its way into the nation's waters means it has to be banned, which is the rationale Europe used to ban its use. That kind of all-or-none thinking about pesticide residues, as longtime critic Dennis Avery put it almost 20 years ago, is an example of the "modern world waging a bizarre new war against its own success." Modern agriculture, he says, which has prevented famine, reduced cancer, saved soil and preserved wildlife habitat equal to more than 15 million square miles, is being attacked for doing so by using technology like atrazine to make that miracle possible. "Conservation tillage is the most powerful weapon against soil erosion that farmers have ever found," he wrote. "The weed killers permit them to quit plowing, and keep their soil in place with cover crops and crop residue. Without conservation tillage the world will face a huge topsoil crisis in the 21st century. With it, we have the most sustainable farming in 10,000 years."

The Nebraska Corn Growers is urging farmers and other stakeholders to enter public comments on EPA's proposal. If you'd like to tell the retail grocer's side of the story, you have until Aug. 5 to comment on the proposal.

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