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EPA abandons science, and growers will pay the price

Gromit702 / iStock Thinkstock EPA sign
DIRTY LITTLE WORD: EPA abandons science in its biological evaluations of glyphosate and atrazine impact on the farm. For farmers this means more scrutiny ahead on any endangered species on your farm.
Decision to not use on-farm data of pesticide use may place additional restrictions on glyphosate and atrazine.

The EPA doesn’t have the best reputation in the countryside, and unfortunately that may have taken a turn for the worse. As the government agency tasked with upholding science, the agency falls short of the promise by top EPA officials and requirements of the law to uphold the use of the “best available science and data” in its decision making.

I’m not even going to talk about EPA’s decision to delay holding oil refiners accountable for RFS blending levels or even a decision out of EPA Thursday on futures steps on WOTUS. This major move by EPA could impact the availability of crucial tools – glyphosate and atrazine - nearly every U.S. farmer uses today.

Farmer commodity groups claim the EPA did not use the best available science and data in the recently released endangered species biological evaluations for glyphosate, atrazine and simazine, and, as a result, EPA’s final assessment for these chemistries vastly inflate the number of species and habitats found likely to be adversely affected.

“The assumptions EPA made in drafting this biological evaluation are not based on the real-world use of these products,” explains Iowa farmer and NCGA President Chris Edgington. “It vastly overestimated the volume of herbicide farmers use and instead relied on inflated levels that resulted in this evaluation.”

In its evaluation, which was released on November 12, 2021, and conducted as part of the Endangered Species Act, EPA looked at the effects of glyphosate, atrazine and simazine on endangered species when used at the highest legal limits rather than at levels typically used by farmers. EPA’s determination is also based on the assumption that the chemistries are used more frequently than estimates would suggest.

NCGA, American Soybean Association and American Farm Bureau Federation were quick to call foul on EPA’s numbers. The groups even offered EPA better data in public comments to the agency, however, that was not incorporated in EPA’s final biological evaluation.

For instance, the final BE for glyphosate continues to assume soybean growers use 3.75 lbs./acre of glyphosate per application, whereas market research data and USDA survey data show the number is 1.00 lb./acre – nearly four times less than the BE assumes.

The final BE for glyphosate also assumes growers reapply chemistry a mere seven days after an initial application. “This extraordinarily unrealistic assumption for any producer increases model exposure risks for species,” ASA and AFBF note in a joint statement.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall says, “We are disappointed that the Environmental Protection Agency was presented with real-world evidence of limited pesticide use but failed to use the most accurate data in its biological evaluations. By overestimating the use of these crop protection tools, the EPA also overestimated the impact on species.”

EPA’s evaluations that don’t incorporate the latest and realistic data will now be used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether the herbicides harm endangered species and could result in product restrictions.

Kyle Kunkler, ASA director of government affairs, notes that U.S. growers rely on glyphosate. According to a 2017 study, producers would suffer $3.385 billion in losses annually on glyphosate-tolerant crops including soybeans, corn, cotton, sugarbeets and canola.

Kunkler notes another study found that all three triazine chemistries – including atrazine, simazine and propazine – found that corn, sorghum and sugarcane growers benefited as much as $3.3 billion annually in yield benefits from the use of the herbicides. This also includes propazine, which EPA stated earlier this year it intended to cancel all registered uses.

Farmers expect government agencies to follow the law, just as they do. Kevin Scott, soybean farmer from South Dakota and president of ASA, called out that the law is clear for EPA to use the use the “best scientific and commercial data available” for its endangered species assessments, but the agency has indicated it has no intent of doing so.

“What is more frustrating is that growers shared with EPA better and credible data, which it chose to ignore. These unrealistic findings will only fuel public distrust and risk grower access to glyphosate and other essential tools,” Scott says.

“Herbicides are vital tools in climate-smart farming because they enable farmers to use minimum tillage practices and fewer resources to raise their crops,” Duvall comments. “EPA must take a well-rounded approach to its biological evaluations and use best available data when deciding on rules that will affect how farmers grow healthy crops.”

ASA and AFBF rightly point out that “the best available science and data” is the standard by which a regulatory agency is charged with conducting Endangered Species Act decisions. “It is also the standard on which the fate of farmers across the country and their continued ability to use vital crop protection tools hinges.”

And unfortunately for farmers, EPA again falls short.

By EPA making such unrealistic findings, the agency must now formally consult with FWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service on hundreds of additional species, which would have been unnecessary had EPA used the best available data.

“This extra burden will likely further strain resource-strapped agencies, expand regulatory timeframes, and result in additional product restrictions that may do nothing to protect species,” ASA and AFBF.

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