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How good science could save our herbicide future

My Generation: Illinois lawmakers have little appetite for good agricultural science around pesticides. Meanwhile, the wind’s blowing harder, herbicides are on the move, and farmers have some decisions to make.

Holly Spangler, Prairie Farmer Senior Editor

May 17, 2024

4 Min Read
A tractor spraying a field
WEED SCIENCE: University of Illinois weed scientist Aaron Hager just wants people to pay attention to science. He says the science against atrazine is poor, the science against dicamba use in soybeans is good, and the big glyphosate verdicts are “rewarding science ignorance — there’s no science that says it causes cancer.” Betty Haynes

Aaron Hager is done.

He’s done with bad science. He’s done with bad legislation. He’s done with farmers who spray in 30 mph wind. He’s done with regulators who can’t figure out what to regulate.

Hager, a University of Illinois weed scientist for the past 31 years, still has a lot of hope, deep down inside. But he’d like everyone involved in weed control to get serious about, well, control. And science.

First on his list? The Endangered Species Act.

It keeps him up at night.

“The Endangered Species Act will likely fundamentally change how we apply pesticides here in Illinois very, very shortly,” Hager says. And he wants farmers to pay attention to it.

The ESA was developed in 1973 to protect endangered and threatened species and their habitats, but environmental groups recently sued U.S. EPA, arguing that existing pesticide labels don’t meet ESA standards. The court agreed and said to comply, and pronto.

So, EPA is working on four strategies: herbicide, fungicide, insecticide and rodenticide. That first one is a biggie, because it’s a rewrite of how the United States does pesticide strategy. The ESA list includes 1,600 endangered species, and 900 are plants. You can easily imagine what that means for herbicide applications. They’ve drawn enormous geographic circles for impact on each endangered species.

What are some of the many ESA challenges? Pesticides undergo re-registration every 15 years, and now they’ll have to jump through ESA hoops, too. EPA estimates a pesticide consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will take four to 12 years, and courts can abruptly cancel pesticide registrations that aren’t yet up for review. The calendar math is tough.

Look for a draft of the herbicide strategy by Labor Day, and be ready to make changes in 2025 — including more record-keeping, more conservation strategies associated with certain herbicides in certain areas, and more cost. USDA says the combined cost of compliance in Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska could hit $5.5 billion.

“We don’t know what the final strategy will look like,” Hager says. “It can’t be worse than the original, I hope.”

And he can’t imagine it won’t affect dicamba use. Courts have consistently ruled that EPA grossly underestimated how dicamba would affect nontarget species. How would dicamba make it through an ESA evaluation?

Pesticides on the move

It doesn’t help when herbicides are showing up in places they shouldn’t. University of Missouri Extension weed scientist Kevin Bradley just published a paper revealing dicamba in rainwater, injuring a variety of agricultural, ornamental and tree species.

Last year, the Illinois Natural History Survey collected tree tissue samples from 185 sites in both May and June and later in July through September, from both affected and nonaffected trees. The results: 77% of early samples contained atrazine and 52% had 2,4-D, plus a variety of other pesticides at much lower frequencies. Nearly all later samples had evidence of fungicide and insecticide. Trees with the most injury in the INHS survey included white oak, black oak, hickory, boxelder, red oak and shingle oak.

Hager points out this survey is a snapshot, not the whole story. But you can bet agriculture will hear more about it in the future from groups who want to protect trees. Some folks report seeing drones flying over their sprayers. Reconnaissance?

That’s not a coincidence.

Real solutions

What if Illinois modified its pesticide act to say no spraying when the wind’s over, say, 20 miles per hour? Illinois ag retailers as a whole breathed a sigh of relief when the state enacted a temperature restriction. That way, if a retailer told a farmer it was too hot to spray dicamba, the farmer couldn’t go down the road and find another retailer.

Hager deeply believes a wind speed spraying restriction — with legal teeth — would help mitigate environmental concerns. Policymakers could shift enforcement responsibility to the registrants, instead of the state. After all, they found the guy planting bin-run Roundup Ready beans; there’s plenty of technology to prove who’s spraying and when.

And yes, dicamba moves through volatility that’s unrelated to wind. Still, the wind restriction will help with other herbicides. And it shows the public that agriculture is trying to nix problems.

“What’s the positive outcome of spraying over 20 mph?” Hager asks. “There are none.”

Listen, nobody in agriculture wants more regulations. We don’t. It’s hard enough to plant and spray in increasingly narrow weather windows, as 2024 reminds us every time it gets fit to try again — and then it rains. Or the wind picks up again. Everybody knows that one guy who’s spraying when he shouldn’t.

But we farm in a state where the General Assembly has a proven appetite for introducing agricultural bills that make zero scientific sense (Exhibit A: the Spring 2024 session).

Granted, a wind restriction won’t cure all application and regulatory ills. Dicamba can still move off-target via volatility without wind. The ESA strategy marches on. But we’re rapidly approaching a point where we’re facing two evils, and a wind restriction might be the lesser of the two.

Folks like Hager, and any farm organization in Illinois, just want good science, and they want regulators and legislators to pay attention to it. Farmers, too. In the end, it might be the thing that saves our best tools.

Comments? Email [email protected].

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About the Author(s)

Holly Spangler

Prairie Farmer Senior Editor, Farm Progress

Holly Spangler has covered Illinois agriculture for more than two decades, bringing meaningful production agriculture experience to the magazine’s coverage. She currently serves as editor of Prairie Farmer magazine and Executive Editor for Farm Progress, managing editorial staff at six magazines throughout the eastern Corn Belt. She began her career with Prairie Farmer just before graduating from the University of Illinois in agricultural communications.

An award-winning writer and photographer, Holly is past president of the American Agricultural Editors Association. In 2015, she became only the 10th U.S. agricultural journalist to earn the Writer of Merit designation and is a five-time winner of the top writing award for editorial opinion in U.S. agriculture. She was named an AAEA Master Writer in 2005. In 2011, Holly was one of 10 recipients worldwide to receive the IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Ag Journalism award. She currently serves on the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, the U of I Agricultural Communications Advisory committee, and is an advisory board member for the U of I College of ACES Research Station at Monmouth. Her work in agricultural media has been recognized by the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Corn, Illinois Council on Agricultural Education and MidAmerica Croplife Association.

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois where they raise corn, soybeans and beef cattle on 2,500 acres. Their operation includes 125 head of commercial cows in a cow/calf operation. The family farm includes John’s parents and their three children.

Holly frequently speaks to a variety of groups and organizations, sharing the heart, soul and science of agriculture. She and her husband are active in state and local farm organizations. They serve with their local 4-H and FFA programs, their school district, and are active in their church's youth and music ministries.

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