Studies Show Atrazine Supports 38,000 to 85,000 U.S. Jobs

Don Coursey, PhD
Ameritech Professor of Public Policy
Harris School – University of Chicago

Recent research by a team of professors has again shown atrazine’s key role in U.S. agriculture.  In light of their five new studies – and the 2010 price and production figures – it appears that 38,000 to 85,000 American jobs depend on atrazine.

“Five papers on the benefits of atrazine and the triazine herbicides” may sound dry, but they were announced within a week of world population reaching seven billion – and their conclusions speak directly to feeding the world while protecting our environment.

Atrazine is a uniquely suited herbicide that increases corn, grain sorghum and sugar cane production substantially.  After more than 50 years experience with atrazine, the studies find growers are applying it to control new weed problems.  It enables tillage practices that saves top soil and reduces soil erosion, costly siltation and turbidity in streams, ponds and rivers.

In 2010, Atrazine’s value to the U.S. economy was between $4 billion and $9 billion.  It generates crops, production, exports, farm income and jobs in communities across the country.  Its incremental benefit to the U.S. corn crop alone is some 600 million bushels, or more than $3 billion in value at $5.40 per bushel, the Department of Agriculture’s 2010 average price.

Working with Syngenta, atrazine’s principal registrant at the Environmental Protection Agency, I have estimated atrazine’s value in Illinois and Minnesota.  I tallied planted corn acres in specific years, acres to which atrazine was applied, and costs of alternative applications for those acres at established prices.  By definition, available alternatives are either more expensive or less effective, or both, meaning higher costs and less return for growers.  The differences between current practice, estimated alternatives and lost yields made a range estimate for each year and state studied.

Atrazine’s indicated value in each analysis proved commensurate with its position as the second ranking herbicide active ingredient, and consistent with numerous other estimates by a host of researchers.

My research found that in Illinois, the second largest corn-producing state, in 2005, atrazine provided between $16 and $59 of benefits per acre.  By 2006, atrazine benefitted growers there by $24 to $72 per acre.  Minnesota growers in 2006 gained between $26 and $69 per acre.

These estimates overlay EPA’s 2003 nominal national average atrazine estimated benefit of $28 per acre.  EPA tallied the loss of nine bushels of production from the then-average corn yield of 138 bushels per acre, at the average per-bushel price of $1.97, and the higher costs of replacement herbicides.  By 2010, average yield was 153 bushels per acre, and the average price was $5.40 per bushel.  The price rise increases the yield loss value to $48.60, from 2001’s $17.73, for an indicated increase in the EPA 2003 estimate, on this basis alone, to $59 per acre.

Estimates of grower impact show a loss of atrazine acts essentially as a tax on producers.  Lost production means lost income, which becomes less consumption by growers – and thus less demand in their communities.  That is how the growers’ decreased demand hurts local economies, where it translates into lost jobs.  And, those who buy and use corn, sorghum and sugar cane – from livestock producers to food processors – would face higher prices because of lower production generally.

However, earlier estimates did not include atrazine’s off-farm — or societal — benefits.  Here the new studies shed important light.  For instance, Professor Paul Mitchell’s research finds atrazine use helps save 56 to 85 million tons of U.S. soil per year.  By reducing tillage requirements, 18 million gallons of fuel are not used, preventing release of 180,000 to 280,000 metric tons of CO2.  The value of the topsoil alone is between $200 million and $350 million.

Also new are estimates of benefits in grain sorghum, sugarcane and sweet corn.  Additional, but smaller uses, such as Christmas trees and southeastern lawn care, have not yet been estimated.

Perhaps most important, Professor Michael Owen describes new, adaptive atrazine uses.  Growers apply atrazine to increase the strength of other technologies and to prevent escape of herbicide-resistant weeds.  This indicates a bright future for atrazine demand.

These benefits grow or contract based on market prices.  For instance, dividing GDP by the relatively flat work force creates a notional value imputed to each U.S. worker of roughly $107,000.  At that rate, the implicit atrazine job cohort is no less than 38,000 (at $4 billion in value) to some 85,000 (at $9 billion).  In July 2010, based on “corn only” figures from 2006, I estimated 21,000 to 48,000 corn-related jobs dependent upon atrazine.

To put the numbers in perspective, were all of the atrazine-dependent jobs assumed to be in the agricultural sector, and atrazine became unavailable, then that sector’s unemployment rate would increase by as much as 3.8 percent.  Or, if all of the jobs were assumed in the corn sub-sector of agriculture, then their loss would increase the corn sub-sector unemployment rate by between 13 percent and 28 percent.

The new studies tell an important part of atrazine’s story.  Economically, growers understand its benefits – and apply it to significant effect.  It increases our ability to feed the world.  It benefits society directly and indirectly, by saving soil and improving water quality.  Its value – especially in difficult economic times – can be understood in American jobs.  And those 38,000 to 85,000 atrazine-dependent U.S. jobs will disappear just as quickly as other atrazine-based benefits, if atrazine is unavailable.