Battling weeds is tough enough for corn farmers, but pending Environmental Protection Agency restrictions could strip them of one of their primary weapons.
Atrazine is one of the oldest and most-tested herbicides in the mix that corn growers use to control weeds and improve yields. It has been at the center of controversy for more than a decade.
The European Union banned its use in 2006, and atrazine has been increasingly restricted in the United States.
Marion was among a group of cities awarded damages in 2012 in a class action lawsuit against Syngenta, manufacturer of atrazine, which was found liable for costs associated with monitoring and removing atrazine from community water supplies.
Proposed EPA regulations would cut the atrazine “level of concern” benchmark for aquatic plant life in lakes and streams by two-thirds. Farmers would have to decrease their use of atrazine accordingly to levels that Kansas Corn Growers Association and other farm advocacy groups claim would render it useless.
Terry Vinduska of Marion, a Kansas Corn Commission member, said the proposed action flies in the face of extensive research on atrazine’s effects.
“I don’t know of any chemical that’s been tested as many times for as many years as atrazine has,” he said. “They don’t base their decisions on sound science or valid research. It’s beyond common sense, it’s beyond science, but we have no choice but to comply.”
Lending weight to Vinduska’s assertion is a Baylor University study published last year. It concluded that atrazine levels in line with EPA’s existing standard had no long-term measurable impact on aquatic plant life.
Researchers said the study was the first of its kind to test atrazine exposure as it naturally occurs in streams.
The Center for Regulatory Effectiveness in Washington, District of Columbia, has faulted EPA for overuse of computer modeling scenarios and ignoring its own testing protocols.
That isn’t the only herbicide corn farmers use, but it’s one of the most effective, Vinduska said.
“It gives very good long-lasting residual control of broadleaf weeds,” he said. “We don’t have a good Plan B. If the EPA ruling goes through, we really don’t have a substitute product to use.”
Vinduska said the alternative to atrazine would be to apply more expensive herbicides more frequently, which he estimated would increase production costs by up to $20 an acre. A 2012 University of Chicago study estimated the loss of atrazine would cost farmers $59 per acre.
Farmers already have seen the effects of atrazine restrictions on production costs, Vinduska said.
“When I started farming there were hardly any limitations as to the amount of atrazine we could apply per acre,” he said. “Now we’re using less than half of that product per year than we used to. Our herbicide bills are four to five times higher than they used to be.”
Vinduska said that some of the past restrictions were justified, but that the latest EPA proposal was extreme. He said farmers had a vested interest in responsible use of herbicides.
“They look at farmers and the first thing they think about is that we’re going to use whatever products we have,” he said. “If I want to turn that land over to my daughter and son-in-law, why would I do anything to abuse that land? We’re talking about our livelihood.”
Individuals and groups will have 60 days to comment on EPA’s proposal, and Vinduska said he encourages people to do so, even though he’s skeptical it will do much good.
“I’ve sent off comments at various times on different matters – I’ve never gotten a response,” he said. “They make up their minds, they set their standards, and we all have to adapt to that.”