Murphy: Five Minutes With The Atrazine Advocate
June 2, 2010
Can agriculture ever win a fight against anti-industry activists with an agenda? If growers had more leaders like Jere White, the Executive Director of the Kansas Corn Growers Association, the answer would be, yes we can.
In this case, the conflict began in the early 1990s. That’s when EPA began reviewing the herbicide atrazine, a widely used, highly effective product with a remarkable track record of success—and safety—that stretches back for decades. EPA conducted a special review of the herbicide in 1994 and gave it full approval in 2006.
Yet despite that decision, thousands of subsequent studies and its status as “the single most widely used herbicide [used] on sweet corn,” according to USDA Agricultural Research Service ecologist Marty Williams, atrazine is again under review by EPA. Why? Inflammatory media coverage, White said.
“A media blitz by activist groups spurred EPA to announce another round of science advisory panels on the herbicide,” White explained. “It started with a National Resources Defense Council report claiming that atrazine was linked to all sorts of potential problems, and both the New York Times and the Huffington Post then came out with stories questioning atrazine’s risks to human health.”
But NRDC, the group that launched the discredited scare stories about alar use on apples in the 1980s, may not have accounted for how tenacious White and the members of the Triazime Network he help organize can be. He spoke about his many years of advocacy on this issue and the battle ahead with Dan Murphy, AgNetwork.com Contributing Editor.
AgNetwork.com: Atrazine has been used by farmers for nearly 50 years. How did the controversy over its safety first get started?
White: In the 1990s, some studies suggested that rats exposed to high levels of atrazine showed an increase in the incidence of mammary tumors. That prompted EPA to order a safety review, which is perfectly appropriate. At first, the data seemed to indicate that there was a risk, but after more research, EPA ultimately decided it was safe for agricultural use, although some non-farm uses were taken off the label.
AgNetwork.com: But doesn’t EPA periodically review its approvals for most chemicals, even if they had previously been declared safe?
White: Yes, and we have no problem with that process. In fact, atrazine was scheduled for a routine review in 2013, and EPA is trying to spin it that this [current] review is just “getting started early.” We don’t buy that. It’s a deviation from the normal process, a shifting of agency resources from other, more pressing safety problems and a misplaced focus on a product that has already been proven safe, both by scientific study and by years of use in the field. We understand that herbicide safety can be a moving target, but it’s hard to believe that a product with a 30-year safety record that still works well is suddenly a danger.
AgNetwork.com: If atrazine were to be banned, or restricted, how would that affect farmers?
White: In Kansas alone, there are approximately six million acres that are treated annually with atrazine, mostly corn and sorghum. The most conservative estimates are that [banning] atrazine would reduce crop values by about $20 an acre, or more than $120 million in lost receipts at the farm gate. You remove that kind of revenue from rural communities and the impact would be felt across the board as cuts in education, transportation, emergency services—everything.
AgNetwork.com: I’m guessing that information didn’t make it into the media coverage about atrazine.
White: It seems that if activists make any kind of a claim, it gets all sorts of coverage, regardless of its credibility. There are literally thousands of studies documenting atrazine’s safety, yet NRDC wants its one report to be considered equally authoritative. EPA has spent years investigating the claims about atrazine’s supposed health effects, and has yet to substantiate any of them.
AgNetwork.com: So what happens next, and what can farmers and growers do to get involved?
White: Well, I’ve been attending every EPA safety panel hearing on atrazine for 16 years now, and I’ll be at these new hearings [on cancer-related issues with atrazine] in September. We’re not trying to stop legitimate scientific review of atrazine’s safety, but I have concerns about EPA making political decisions about its use. At some point, we will need to mobilize farmers to speak out on the benefits of atrazine and its performance out in the field.
AgNetwork.com: How can they do that?
White: For now, we’ve launched an informational website that explores the facts about atrazine safety and can help farmers get up to speed on the issue. Later on, we plan to incorporate the capability to send out alerts and mobilize our members to apply the same kind of pressure on Congress and EPA as the activists do.
Sometimes, that’s the only way we can get to tell our side of the story.
Original interview at AgNetwork.com.