Wallaces Farmer

Weed management uncertainty reigns

As Things Look to Me: Regulatory and legal hurdles — different from before — could change the way you farm in the next decade.

Gil Gullickson, editor of Wallaces Farmer

June 4, 2024

4 Min Read
Plowed field with row crops with tractor in distance
PESTICIDE CHALLENGES: Farmers face new regulatory and legal challenges for pesticides they apply to their crops. Courtesy of Corteva Agriscience

John Brien patiently rattled off this year’s agronomic concerns, such as managing weeds, during a farm show interview last winter.

I asked him if there is any sleeper issue — any black swan weed or any other agronomic concern — that no one else is writing about. After all, I was digging (see what I did there?) for weed information, which is the focus of this digital issue of Wallaces Farmer.

“Not really,” said the agronomy division manager for AgReliant Genetics, “but there is something else. Growers have been sheltered from this, but the impact it will have on the industry is enormous.”

What concerns Brien is how the legal and regulatory arena is impacting farming and agronomics. Granted, farmers and farm groups have lamented how these areas impact agriculture for decades.

Yet, it seems different this time, since use of mainstream products farmers rely upon is threatened.

Next for your favorite herbicide?

Last February, an Arizona federal court vacated 2020 registrations of Bayer’s XtendiMax, BASF Engenia and Syngenta’s Tavium dicamba herbicides. Distributors can still sell these products for use in dicamba-tolerant crops for 2024 if they were on hand by Feb. 6. After that, uncertainty reigns.

There are some farmers and landowners who would not miss dicamba, given its off-target troubles. Yet, it’s a symptom of a larger and worsening problem, Brien says.

“It’s not so much the chemistry we should be worried about, but the process in which the chemistry was vacated,” Brien says. “You may not be a dicamba fan, but your favorite chemistry might be next. We need to understand the ramifications of what can happen.”

The legislative arena

The Iowa Legislature wrestled with this trend in its last session. A bill would have curtailed lawsuits against any pesticide registered with the Environmental Protection Agency — and sold under a label consistent with EPA’s own determinations — that satisfied requirements for health and safety warnings. 

It would not have prevented lawsuits over other topics, such as for product defects. Instead, the bill — which was backed by Bayer and myriad agricultural groups — aimed at lawsuits for those such as ones glyphosate has faced. This herbicide has racked up thousands of lawsuits and billions of dollars in settlements that are rooted in a 2015 assessment by a World Health Organization agency fingering it as a possible carcinogen.

Such legal action has created concern that farmers could lose access to glyphosate. When used according to label instructions, every other independent analysis shows glyphosate is safe to use.

Even with its resistance issues on broadleaves such as waterhemp, glyphosate remains a crucial postemergence herbicide that still controls grasses well. It enables farmers to no-till, which saves soil and helps sequester greenhouse gases that can help mitigate climate change.

Still, there’s a downside in moving from the judicial to the legislative arena to battle such lawsuits. It creates a perception that a global agribusiness giant is bullying a state legislature and preventing citizens from having their day in court.

Unfair? Yes. To the general public, though, such legislation creates a look that’s not good for Iowa agriculture.

Endangered Species Act review

Queasiness also exists regarding the Environmental Protection Agency review of how pesticides impact species protected under the Endangered Species Act. Under the review, the EPA aims to develop mitigation strategies ranging from contour farming to cover crops to installation of riparian areas to reduce impacts on endangered species.

"We know farmers are good stewards, and we can’t have regulations that put so much burden on them that is impractical and doesn’t achieve the outcome that some might want,” says Paul Rea, BASF senior vice president ag solutions-North America. “We need transparency from the agency to understand and support strategies that are developed in collaboration with impacted stakeholders.” 

No easy answers

Properly done, regulation can achieve positive results. Ever wonder why your corn and soybeans need sulfur now? The Clean Air Act of 1970 worked wonders for cleaning up all that atmospheric sulfur your crops gleaned for free.

Then again, there’s good reason for the gut-churning apprehension farmers and farmers groups feel about this new round of legal and regulatory challenges. At best, they may cause inconvenience. At worst, they will prevent farmers from using products on which their livelihoods depend. It is vital that such challenges balance industry and farmer interests with public concerns.

After all, people gotta eat.

About the Author(s)

Gil Gullickson

editor of Wallaces Farmer, Farm Progress

Gil Gullickson grew up on a farm that he now owns near Langford, S.D., and graduated with an agronomy degree from South Dakota State University. Earlier in his career, he spent 13 years as a Farm Progress editor, covering Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Gullickson is a widely respected and decorated ag journalist, earning the Agricultural Communicators Network writing award for Writer of the Year three times, and winning Story of the Year four times. He is a past winner of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ Food and Agriculture Organization Award for Food Security. He has served as president of both ACN and the North American Agricultural Journalists.

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