Prof. Don Coursey and Jere White of Triazine Network discuss new research on Atrazine and jobs
JERRY WHITE: Good morning everyone. First, thank you all for coming. It’s certainly great to see all of you here today. My name is Jerry White. I’m the Chairman of the Triazine Network, and for those of you that I do not already know, my day job is working for Kansas Corn and Green [00:18] Farmers. The Triazine Network is a nationwide coalition comprised of farmers and agricultural groups who raise crops, crops that have safely fed livestock and people for years, and who are concerned about issues regarding the regulation of Atrazine, one of the Triazine herbicides. We raise over thirty crops in over forty states. Crops as diverse as citrus, grapes, grain sorghum, nuts, field corn, vegetables, Christmas trees, and sugar cane.
And we see first-hand the critical benefits of triazines, including Atrazine, on every one of those crops. For those unfamiliar with the relationship of other triazines to Atrazine, which is obviously what we’re more focused on today, please know that, as goes triazine, so goes the other– or, as goes Atrazine, so goes Simazine and Propazine, and other triazine herbicides.
Atrazine, indeed all pesticides, are constantly threatened by activist’s actions, and more recently, trial lawyer litigation. More concerning, however, is the response of USCPA in the introducing of an unplanned and unprecedented new review in response to activist pressure. I’ll introduce Dr. Coursey in a moment, but first let me describe our agenda this morning.
Here with us this morning are representatives of several important agricultural groups, and I’ll mention a few of those: Croplife America, National Cooperative Council, The American Farm Bureau Federation, United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, AG Retailers, and National Corngrower’s Association. And also joining us, obviously, are reporters from AG Press and others, whose time and intention we certainly appreciate.
Dr. Coursey has written a piece that all of you have in your kits, along with other information, that makes a broad estimate of job losses should EPA cede to activist calls for an Atrazine brand. He will present that, and then take questions from the reporters, and I’m certainly also happy to reply to reporter questions from the standpoint of growers. And when that’s finished, we’ll just continue the discussion individually, so that all of us can visit about this very significant tool in the farmer’s toolbox, and why losing it would be so devastating to agriculture.
No one cares more about the safety of agricultural pesticides than the farmers that use it. We use it on our farms, we own the land, and that’s where we raise our families. We understand that we have an important stake in keeping our land, rivers, and ponds safe for our families, and certainly for our communities as well. If sound scientific research finds that Atrazine, or any agricultural pesticide, cannot be used safely, we will be the first to agree with increased regulation. But sound scientific research has found repeatedly that Atrazine is safe. This current EPA re-review, predicated by activist-fed media reports and their citation of shoddy science, has not shown any reason for a change from the agency’s recent determination that Atrazine is indeed safe to use on our farms.
Several years ago, I remember getting a call from Don Coursey. It’s not every day that someone like myself gets a call from an economist at the University of Chicago. He told me that he had decided to go to work on a project with Syngenta, and he asked me for a very simple thing, and that was to try to keep him on a track– to do a gut check, reality check if you will—from the agricultural community on work that he’d be doing. And that work was to determine the value of Atrazine in our economy. I thought it was a good idea, and certainly many of us have thought about that concept and hoped that someone would do the work. We certainly knew and understood the value of Atrazine on our farms, but we didn’t necessarily know the value overall. And we knew that most of the country did not view the world from inside the gates of our farming community.
Well, since then, Don has published one paper on Atrazine with the Illinois Farm Bureau, and he has another one in the works that is soon to come out. But before that, with all the talk from the activists who oppose conventional agriculture, in the difficulties we face in our economy, and jobs picture regarding the economy, Don decided to take a quick look at job losses from banning Atrazine, which, again, is what the activists are asking for. I think he has thought through this very well, but the outcome was shocking to me. I know how debilitating job losses are to small rural communities. I know that. I live in a town with 3,100 people. It is a story that must be told, and that is why the Triazine Network is pleased to host him here today, and hopefully you will hear that story and understand why we thought it was important.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Professor Don Coursey.
DON COURSEY: Good morning to all of you, and thank you for coming. Thank you Jerry for that nice introduction, and thank you Jerry for five years of solid support that did keep me grounded in the realities of the corn business while I was going through this academic exercise. I’ve been an economist for thirty years, and I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of different things. To obviously teach my students and do my research, but to participate in the public policy debate, testifying before Congress, working for the Department of Interior, for the State Department for a time, involved in many lawsuits, worked for national intelligent agencies here in the District for a while, worked for corporations for think tanks, NGOs, a lot of work for the EPA, and indeed a lot of applied environmental economics and energy research for foreign governments.
And that represents a nice career of different opportunities to participate in the policy process, but there’s—It’s a lot of different things and a lot of different times. But one thing that sort of bound that all together was that I never asked to address an economic issue where a well-known and well-respected product was being considered taken off the marketplace.
So much of economic life in a country like ours is “What is new? What’s the new product? What’s the new iPhone going to do? Is it going to be a big hit for Apple, or is it just going to be a marginal improvement? How will this new product change the way we work and interact with each other? Almost never do we consider the removal of a major product from the American economy. That’s not to say that things don’t get stale or superseded by better products; very few of us use an abaci for instance these days. But a major product that’s having a major impact on the economy being taken away.
So I was approached five years ago by Syngenta to address this issue; to imagine a hypothetical ban on Atrazine, for only corn, and for the state of Illinois. Atrazine, as Jerry pointed out, is used on a lot of different products, and I will refer to some of these other products as well, but my job for the last five years is to focus upon Atrazine and corn. And this material resulted in the study that Jerry cited by the Illinois Farm Bureau. I’m in the process of updating extensively that report, and in the near future you’ll be able to see the update of that.
What’s my punch line here today? The punch line here today is that a ban on Atrazine nationally would be devastating for the U.S. corn economy. Absolutely devastating. And I’ll tell you why over the next fifteen minutes or so. I want to point out that everything I’m saying today is available in your packet. There’s a report, there’s an executive abstract for it, and, important to you, a lot of the logical, sort of algebraic mathematics I’m going to go through are printed out in a very easy-to-read Powerpoint presentation. And I think you can follow the logic quite readily if you want to take a look at those, and if you have any questions I’m obviously going to be here to talk with you about that.
So it started, for me, in Illinois. What do I do? I was asked to imagine a situation where one Winter, farmers woke up and awoke to a world where their Spring corn crops were no longer going to be—No longer was Atrazine going to be available to use as a tool to help them grow that crop. Question is what would they do, and the secondary question is what would that cost them. What would be the economic impact of a ban on Atrazine?
If you look at the farmer by farmer by farmer level on this, who knows what Farmer A is going to do, Farmer B, Farmer C. However, we have extensive records on what people have done historically if they have not used Atrazine. And the first group of these people that didn’t use Atrazine to begin with are people that were using alternatives to Atrazine. Atrazine has been around for over fifty years. It’s the cheapest product in its class. But other farmers have chosen to use more expensive substitutes for Atrazine. So one group of people, we obviously look at and say they would switch from a world of using Atrazine to a non-Atrazine product, which would be more expensive.
Another option for a farmer who woke up in that hypothetical winter before that year’s ban on Atrazine on next year’s crop, could move to GMO: genetically modified corn. In that case, they’d be making the simultaneous decision to use that corn, to use glyphosate. The use of GMO seed corn and glyphosate, again, is more expensive than more traditional based growing of corn using Atrazine.
So those are the two main alternatives: switch out of Atrazine into some other traditional herbicide, or make a bigger technological shift to bigger, GMO type of technology. Simultaneous to that is the fact that both of those choices will involve yield losses. If you’re not using Atrazine and you’re using alternatives, statistically you’re going to have lower yields. If you’re moving to GMO with glyphosate, you’re going to have lower yields again than in an Atrazine environment.
So, in my remarks today, and in the research that’s reported in the written work in your package, I’m going to report ranges. There are a lot of different yield studies having to do with Atrazine. Many yield studies. And they range from a removal of Atrazine producing large yield losses to a removal of Atrazine producing very large yield losses. So, being a good statistician, I’m going to report ranges. And these ranges come from, primarily, that difference in the yield estimates that you might choose.
So what did I find? In the state of Illinois, I found that, if Atrazine were removed from the corn decision making process, it would result in a between $26-58 per acre cost to farmers. Again, this range comes from the fact that there’s different yield assumptions. $26-58 per acre. Or, multiplying that by the extent corn acreage in the state of Illinois, between $166,000-450,000 per year to the corn economy. $166,00 to $450,000 per year. My range, $26 to $58 per acre in Illinois, corresponds very nicely with EPA’s official statement of what the value of Atrazine is on a per acre basis, which is $28 per acre. That $28 falls right within the range of the 26-58 that I found in analyzing Illinois corn production.
What would that mean if we applied it nationally? Different states have different climates for growing corn. Some states are higher in latitude than Illinois, some are lower, some are to the West where’s it typically drier, some are to the East where it’s typically a bit wetter, and rainfall differs from place to place. But, under the assumption that we can apply this $26 to $58 per acre estimate from the detailed analysis of Illinois to the corn-growing region of the United States—If you apply the 26-58, you end up with a national level. An Atrazine ban producing between 2.3 and 5.0 billion dollars per year in losses. 2.3 to 5.0 billion dollars per year. The EPA, in their literature, says that a national ban would affect the corn crop, “in excess of 2.0 billion dollars a year.”
So we have a number, roughly between two and five billion dollars per year. And we can, at this point in my discussion, go a lot of different directions. Are these a large number from the policy point of view, what should we do about it, and so forth. But what I was asked to do over the last few months, and asked to share with you today, is to look at these numbers– the 2.3 to 5.0 billion dollars per year from a hypothetical national ban on Atrazine use for corn– and state, from my expert opinion, what that might mean for jobs in the economy. And to stand back and look at this from the perspective of Atrazine and jobs as opposed to Atrazine and economic consequences.
So, starting with this range of numbers, 2.3 to 5.0 billion dollars per year in the United States, look at the labor force. The labor force consists of the people that are working or unemployed and looking for work. The official labor force doesn’t count those unemployed and not looking for work. But if you take the GDP in the United States and divide it by the labor force, you find that the average worker in our economy contributes basically $93,000 per year to American GDP. Some of us maybe less than that, some of us more than that, but the average person in the labor force contributes about $93,000 to the GDP. So, using my range of economic losses from Atrazine in a given year, which ranged again from 2.3-5.0 billion dollars a year, one way of looking at job loss would be to say that if the jobs were spread just evenly though the American economy, that would mean the total number of job losses would be between 21,000 and 48,000 people. That’s one way of using a lens to focus this 2.3-5.0 billion dollars per year total loss.
Perhaps a better way would be to say, “well, if you banned Atrazine, it’s not going to affect probably a steel worker in Illinois or a coal miner in Utah or a textile manufacturer in North Carolina; it’s going to affect agriculture. That’s where the job losses will be.” If you took that approach, my second sort of lens of looking at this, and you said, how would it affect the agricultural sector? It turns out that the numbers indicate that unemployment would go up by 2.6%. Now, let’s be careful with that number. Unemployment in that sector right now is about twelve. And I’m not talking about 2.6 of twelve, 2.6% of twelve. I’m talking about going from 12% to 14.6%. 12 plus 2.6 is 14.6. So an increase in the unemployment rate by 2.6. Pretty large number.
I use the word devastating to describe the affect of an Atrazine ban at the beginning of my remarks. A third way to look at this. Assuming those job losses would be homogenously distributed through the American economy, assuming that they’d be concentrated in agriculture but really concentrated in the corn sector of agriculture, the third way of looking at this is: what if all the job losses were focused on that subsection of agriculture that is the corn economy. Turns out there that the unemployment rate would increase between 10.9% and 25% in that sector, and that’s why I use the word devastating.
I would point out, and this echoes in a different way from the economic lends as opposed to an on-the-ground, living in Kansas in a small community lens, but at the same point, 95% of corn production in this country occurs on small, rural farms. So this devastation, in terms of economy and lost jobs, would fall primarily on small, rural farmers.
Could there be other effects? Almost always when there is some activity done in a policy setting there can be unintended consequences and surprises that people didn’t think about. I want to talk about three of those, although I’m sure that will not exhaust the list of effects should Atrazine actually be banned.
The first of these is that we’ve had a good twenty, twenty-five year effort to practice what are called conservation tillage practices. And what that means is that instead of having to plow up your land each Spring to plant your crop, that you can be much less invasive to the soil. You basically go along and pop little holes in the ground, put the seeds in, cover them up a little bit, and you’re good to go. The corn will start growing. In order to do that however, you need to lay down something to protect that area from the plants that would come and compete with things like corn. And Atrazine is an extremely important product in doing that. Should you take Atrazine out of the equation for the farmers, it’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible for many of them, to practice conservation tillage practices. Which means there will be more runoff in the fields. Which means that we’re going to have more problems associated with the runoff from those fields getting into the water supply, and so on down the stream. So, the first big unintended consequence that you might think about is the effect upon water if Atrazine were actually banned.
I mentioned at the beginning that this talk is primarily about corn, but two other big users of Atrazine, two other crop big users in this country, are sorghum and sugar cane. The EPA has estimated that the use of Atrazine in sugar cane results in 10% to 40% higher yield than otherwise would occur, which is a bigger yield effect than it is has on corn itself. Sugar cane is even more reactive to the ability of Atrazine to take care of its problems. To put some numbers on that, that 10% to 40% translates to between $89,000 and $340,000 per year in benefits to sugar cane from Atrazine. I haven’t taken the numbers a step further, but that would obviously imply more losses in terms of jobs, on top of those that I’ve already mentioned and cited, regarding the corn ban.
The third thing I want to talk about is that, whether you’re talking about GMO or traditional use of herbicides, there are going to be yield effects. We know that certain things that harm corn are becoming more or less immune to glyphosate. Yields are going down with GMO crops. We know yields go down when you take away Atrazine. There’s going to be a major yield effect that we’re going to have to address sometime or another because of a hypothetical ban on Atrazine nationally.
So let me close up by stating what I think are the main points that I’m trying to share with you today. One, corn is a very very valuable and important crop in the American economy. Two, a ban on Atrazine will result, at the level of an individual farm, as a pure tax. And what do I mean by a pure tax? It’s a tax that’s going to affect that group of people, the corn-growers, without anything else in the economy, it’s going to pump and say, “Even though these people are harmed, this positive effect is going to occur, and to at least negate it in the rest of the macro economy.” This a pure tax. You’re basically going to take away income from one group of people and it’s gone.
That’s going to devastate the farmers and the corn economy. And it’s going to devastate the communities in which they live. These communities are already under stress, a pure tax affecting them in this way, taking their income away, is going to hit them where the meat is gone, the bones that are left: the fire service, the police service, the school services, and indeed the environmental services in these communities.
So, in closing, I just want to say is that the last thing we need right now is something that will cause more people to lose their jobs in the United States economy, and a not well-thought-out ban on Atrazine would be exactly one of those.
I’ll stop now and entertain your questions, and I think Jerry will want to join me in answering them.
[Questions from the room?]
Q: I’m not an economist, but is it fair to say that all of the loss here translates into jobs? Would some of it not be translated into loss of profit, loss in economic productivity, and not necessarily be a direct translation into lost jobs, so that these numbers might be skewed a little bit?
COURSEY: I think if they’re skewed, they’re probably skewed in a downward direction, because I’m assuming that if there’s a farmer in a community whose income or profits– whatever the economic measure is in terms of economic impact effects, it could be either and that’s fine, you make a good point. But I’m assuming that if that person loses their job, that’s the end of my story. That’s probably not true. If you lose your job, you’re probably not going to be shopping in the grocery store as much, and maybe the grocery store owner at least has a letdown of business or maybe at the margin he has to shut down as well.
I’m only looking into direct effects. I’m not multiplying by any multiplier that you normally would. Typically at the U.S. Federal level, the multipliers that are used are about 1.6 to about 2.1. I didn’t want to go down that route. I’m not an expert on what the exact multiplier might be in the corn economy. I’m guessing it’s probably not that much different from the range that the government uses for general purposes. So these numbers are actually conservative. Don’t look at that secondary or tertiary, or so forth that gives you the full impact.
WHITE: I might add a brief comment, because Don and I had this discussion last night. One of the things that demonstrated– And we really hadn’t thought so much about things beyond the farm gate economy on this issue historically. But when I think back over things in a rural community setting—like I said, that’s where I live—there were things that appeared to be just gross dollars, changes that didn’t maybe seem significant at the time. And I would say one of the big issues would be the Conservation Reserve Program. It was a great program for a lot of things. It increased the number of acres for wildlife habitat. It was a good program for landowners themselves. But the fact is, in rural communities, the ones that I’m most familiar with, they saw a decline in goods and services that were available in those rural communities simply because, not necessarily because the gross dollars associated with that acre of land changed, because there were payments made on the COP acres, but because the farmer that previously was operating wasn’t getting welding repairs done, wasn’t buying seed, wasn’t doing all the other economic activity that multiplies in those rural communities.
And where we had three implement dealers in Grant, Kansas when CRP program when in—and I’m not saying it’s totally CRP-related—we don’t have any in Grant, Kansas right now. Not a one. Where we had probably three grocery stores, we have one. Where we had a lot of shops around the town square on Main Street, we have Wal-Mart twenty-two miles away. I’m not an economist. I work with farmers. But part of what really got to me, and what Dr. Coursey was saying, was that I’m not sure that often enough we take a look at the general economic situations in a rural economy and equate it to jobs, but I can assure you that every one of those businesses that doesn’t exist now had jobs associated with them.
TIM BURBECK: It was mentioned in the beginning that Atrazine was used on a number of crops including some specialty crops. Have you done any research in terms on what the impact is going to be on other commodities or are you planning to do that? Do you have a sense, you know, in terms of what some of those other commodity groups.
COURSEY: It’s a very good question and something, down the road, that I’d like to address. I think the tenor of your question was, if you—Illinois is a big state, in terms of corn production, but still, it’s not big enough to affect world prices. And that’s how we trade corn, we trade it at world prices. And if you don’t believe that, look at the volume of trade in corn between China and the rest of the world. But if Illinois were to experience a ban on Atrazine, then the price of Illinois corn would go up. The world price wouldn’t, so the Illinois farmers would have to eat it, essentially. If you had a ban on Atrazine nationally, and you talked about the effect being on the national market for corn, then that’s probably big enough to ding around on the margins of the world price for corn. Take the United States as a whole corn market. It could change that.
And what that would mean– the first order of effect would be a world price change in corn, and the second would be all the products that are based on corn. As we know, most corn is used to feed animals, and very little of it is consumed by the public. A lot of it is used to produce byproducts like oil and so forth. So that would sort of cascade out. There would be effects upon the meat markets, on pork, beef, and so forth. Again, at a world level. There’d be effects on plastics and other things where corn products are a substitute or a complement, and yes, that would be a big project. It’s something that is on my burner, but I have other things to do first. But, yes.
And you go down that line, and at some point you go from the economic to the political. I mean, what’s the effect of a ban on Atrazine in the United States? Down the line, way far at the end, might be the price of pork goes up in China. And politically, it’s not just a meat price going up. There’s a notion that if you’re a poor person in China, you’re at least going to get some pork once in a while. If you were going to take that away because of this chain of cause and effects, you’ll have political implications. It’s already a political implication. The price of corn in Northern Africa, where traditionally Europeans and Americans, but these days more Europeans, have donated a lot of wheat. The eating economies there are based upon wheat.
The price of corn has gone up for other reasons, unrelated to Atrazine. We’ve seen the price of wheat go up, naturally, because they move together, they’re substitutes for each other. So you have at the margin, again, a little less proclivity for people to give up so much wheat, and the world price is higher. And there’s a lot of different things that can occur down this chain, and we’re only beginning to understand. My point is that a national ban on Atrazine would set up a whole series of chain effects, that would start from the world price of corn changing to, at the end, perhaps unforeseen political effects which could be quite large.
WHITE: And I think even beyond the economics of the question that you asked, one of the concerns from the grower community that we would certainly have, is with the massive volume of sound science that EPA utilized in their twelve-year review of Atrazine to come, through two administrations, both Republican and Democrat, to say that Atrazine was safe to be used on farms, and then to be faced with the challenges that we have today. You know, if Atrazine were to be banned, beyond the economic implications regarding Atrazine, what are the implications to any other pesticide that your industry might need? Certainly that is a huge concern.
[Other questions? I think in the back we had one.]
PHILLIP BRASHER: Could you– Do I understand you to say that there could be an increase, or reduction in corn area, increase in prices as a result of this—Do I understand you say that you didn’t factor that into your projections here, the economic impacts? I’m not quite clear. If you didn’t factor that in, what would happen to the price of corn? What would happen to the acreage? I don’t see how you can project the impacts on the farm economy.
COURSEY: There’s no doubt that the costs are going to go up if Atrazine is removed. The question you’re asking, I think, is, “wouldn’t the prices go up at least enough to offset debt effect?” And the answer is no. Empirically, the answer is no. Otherwise, farmers would’ve figured that out already.
COURSEY: Prices are never going to go up enough to cover the excess cost there. And it depends upon a question that nobody really knows the answer to, which is, exactly how much would the price of corn go up in the United States, and exactly how much would that affect the world price? And nobody has ever made that calculation.
BRASHER: Can you compare the economic effects to other effects…(inaudible). For example, fertilizer prices increased pretty dramatically over a year or two. …(inaudible).
COURSEY: You look at these numbers here, just to give you– These are giant numbers. $26 to $58 per acre. Here’s an example. When farmers stop using Atrazine, they’re probably going to have to make more passes with other herbicides. How much does an extra pass cost? Well they’re running diesel fuel, and they have huge arms on these tractors. And they’re going across multiple acres in a few minutes. So how much does it cost for extra diesel fuel to make that other pass? Something, but not anything near $26 to $58. And so a lot of these other things might fluctuate, like the price of diesel that’s associated with driving tractors, are going to be much, much lower, even looking at historical highs and lows in prices than the $26 to $58 per acre– that’s a very large range of numbers.
WHITE: Again, I’m glad I don’t have to cipher stuff out like Don does, but I would say that the key difference I would see in the question you’re asking– nitrogen fertilizer wasn’t banned. It was a price change that occurred. Most of that price change was somewhat temporary. Some farmers had protection against it, some did not. Actually, some retailers were less protected than the farmers were against it. But the economies were able to adjust to what was, in a lot of cases, a short-term situation. A ban on Atrazine, the theoretical ban that Dr. Coursey worked on, was not a temporary look at an issue that was only temporary. It was from that point on. And that’s where I would see the main difference. I would, from a practical standpoint, say what you’re saying is that obviously there was some short-term impact in terms of gross revenue available in those communities at that time. Fortunately, commodity prices at that time were able to absorb some of them. Obviously, it did have a short term impact, but it wasn’t like a permanent ban of a product.
RICHARD GUBSON: On your alternatives, you have higher cost. Does that factor in if Atrazine is banned, the increase demand for those alternative products like glyphosate or others, because obviously when there’s less tools in the toolbox for the farmer to use Atrazine, there’s going to be increased demand for those alternative products. Does that factor in a higher price?
COURSEY: It does factor in, and I think you raise a good point that in a very short run period, let’s say months or weeks, that there might be temporary increases in those alternatives to Atrazine, but the nature of the manufacturing of these chemicals is that the producers of these alternatives could ramp up and change their production very quickly, and those price effects, even over the course of three months would be trivial. There’s a lot of returns to scale that goes in terms of production of all of these herbicides.
ALANNA SHORE: I’m wondering– there’s pending legal action from a few cities about Atrazine in water. I’m wondering if, in your study, you factored in the cost of fighting those legal challenges in terms of keeping Atrazine on the market. I mean, it doesn’t have to put out right, but there are these pending suits.
COURSEY: I didn’t factor it in, because I have no idea. I’m aware that there are legal actions going on with respect to Atrazine, but I have no information about the economics of the lawsuits, and I don’t think anybody does. It’s not a matter of public record.
MATT KEGAN: Any thoughts on what the impact would be– Would many of these economic problems go away if the herbicide were reregistered with tougher restrictions on its application, its use to protect groundwater. Do you have any thoughts on what your economic modeling would be if there was simply a reregistration [sic] with tougher restrictions.
COURSEY: I’ll let Jerry answer that from the practical level of the farm, but I would point out that the restrictions have been tough and have never gotten easier. Secondly, it’s important to keep in mind that the total use of Atrazine in the United States is something that has gone down no matter what metric you use to measure it. You’re talking about something in between, something like a not-used rule and a current rule, I’d have to understand the economics of that better by having a longer conversation with people like Jerry, so if you want to take–
WHITE: I think the short, off-the-cuff answer would be that, as you lower– obviously, you’re implying, what if we just lowered the rates? And you know the fact is, if you lower rates, you take different weeds off the control label. And that has already occurred with this product over the years. I guess my main response to the concept of the question is, in fact, just a few years ago EPA said that the rates we adopted to, the label changes that were made as part of the reregistration [sic] ensured that no unreasonable harm would come—it was a safe product to use. And this was a determination that was made after scientific review of both the Clinton administration and the Bush administration.
And there’s been nothing in the science volume of vetted out science that’s changed since that time. What we had were some activist reports that were picked up by the media that were spun into a new re-review. If you go back to the science that was contained in some of those earlier reports, the SAPs of our rating, for the most part, dismiss the science that was included in them. Now we’re back to talk about frogs, and other things. EPA has spent a tremendous amount of time talking about frogs and Atrazine. The scientist who really brought that issue forward doesn’t even bother to show up at the SAP’s, the Scientific Advisory Panels of EPA dealing with amphibians anymore.
It’s absurd what we’re in, but the reality is, if you go to change the labels much from where they’re at now, and you make the product ineffective to control weeds, you have created de facto brand of the product. And without a science background to doing that, it really begs the question about what is the process here in this country if that were to happen.
KEGAN: So is it your expectation that it will be taken off the market completely or that they’ll leave it alone?
WHITE: Well, the Triazine Network formed in 1995, and we’ve been around a lot longer than I thought we would be when we agreed to form and I agreed to chair it. But, from the get-go, a question has always been from some of the EPA, what’s the lowest rate you can live with? And the fact is that a lot of farmers are using very small amounts of the product. But something that is missed by a lot of folks is the fact that they think its this big industrial farmer, this corporate farmer, that’s a label we like to put on them. In fact, if you take a look at where the product is most important at higher rates, it’s not in the central part of the Corn Belt, it’s in places like Kentucky. It’s in sorghum fields in the arid portions of Kansas. It’s not in the high volume, high gross revenue maker acres of crops. It’s where the farming is somewhat marginal. These are small farmers.
You know, could some commodities take a slight label revision? Yea, I suspect that probably at some case they could. But the types of issues that are being thrown out there now, where they’re talking about detections of causing an issue on what we think is questionable science, a tenth of a part of a billion, I’m not sure what that label rate would look like. But I’m pretty sure it’s not something that would mean very much to a weed, you know. And that’s the issue. We’re trying to control weeds. Once you get to the point that you’re not controlling weeds anymore, all you’re doing is harm to yourself.
KEGAN: So there really is not much latitude there?
WHITE: Not much, not much.
[One more question.]
ALAN FERGUSON: You mention that you started looking at a hypothetical ban on Atrazine five or six years ago, why was that? And that you formed this network in 1995, why was that? And is your greater concern not so much Atrazine but sort of this family of weed-killers.
COURSEY: Well, my answer would be simple. I started five years ago because I was approached by Syngenta with this interesting problem of what happens when you take away a major product?
ALAN FERGUSON: Did they think there was a ban imminent at that point?
COURSEY: Not necessarily. They came to me as an economist in Hyde Park and said, “How would you address this?” And I really scratched my head a lot, because very few of us ever address removing major products from the marketplace. I found it intriguing, and they said do it.
WHITE: In terms of the network, we formed in 1995, largely at that time, corn farmers knew, and certainly agriculture knew that Atrazine was a big product for them. What we didn’t know much in the corn world anyway was about thinks like special review. It was a new term; a new term to us. Quite frankly, historically, we let the industry to figure these things out and figured the best would come of it. But we really got more involved at that time, I think, because for a change, we had not only a product that was important to my corn farming members, but my sorghum farming members. To citrus members in California. To …(inaudible) fruits and vegetable members in Florida. To Stevie Wheylan’s sugar growers in Hawaii. It was a totally different thing.
We probably had parallel universes, but we hadn’t figured it out yet. And we did figure it out in 1995. And not only was our goal to keep the agency engaged in terms of good science and understanding the agricultural implications of things that they did, but we also kept the registrants engaged. It was not just directed at the agency. Think about it. It wasn’t Syngenta …(inaudible) And there’s Novartus. And there’s Syngenta. And every change along the way they had changes in leadership, and they had changes in management people. Sometimes it included people who had been competitors before that most recent change. And we knew how important it was to the growers, and we wanted to make sure the company knew how important it was to the growers, too. Really, we had two different focuses. Right now, our focus is, obviously the registrants are all in on this, our focus is more on the agency, but it’s all inclusive from the grower’s standpoint.
FERGUSON: Do you see Congress stepping in on this?
WHITE: You know, I have a lot of faith in the regulatory system in the U.S. We have to. As growers of commodities that sell in the world market, we have to. Do I think the regulatory system needs prodding and help occasionally? Yea, I certainly do. I’d like to think that this isn’t one of those times, but we see a lot of signals that indicate that there might be some help needed to stay on course and we’re prepared to do whatever we need to do. My hope is that sound science will carry the ball at the end of this game, and we’ll be where we were a few years ago where sound science carried the ball then. And that’s really where I’d like to be. The next to last thing I’d like to see is getting to an endgame that we would be comfortable with that involved Congress. Because, quite frankly, we’re much better off when the system works the way it’s intended to work.
JAY ROOM: Professor Coursey, I think you raised a really important issue at the beginning of your remarks talking about how agriculture really is somewhat different from other parts of society. When we see a new innovation introduced in other places outside of agriculture, old products tend to fade into the background. But, because farmers are dealing with Mother Nature, and one of those factors being resistance to technology that farmers use, it sometimes mean that to preserve new technologies, you need to rely on some bits of older technologies. I wondered if you had a chance to look at economic data that extrapolates and looks into the future to project economic impacts of resistance patterns, should older technologies be taken out of the mix, and if not, is that an area that you think you might be able to look into?
COURSEY: I’ve looked at that a little bit. Before I started working on this project in Illinois, the GMO production was about 40% in Illinois, and now this year it’s close to 80%. And that’s a massive change just in the time I’ve looked in Illinois. I have extensive information on what people are growing GMO crops are doing. They’re using glyphosate, and even before, four or five years ago, there was some talk about the resistance here, but it was more maybe, maybe not, and now it’s pretty much agreed that it’s at least a small problem, and probably growing. The fact of the matter is that, even four years ago, when you look at the detailed data, a great majority of the people who are using glyphosate are adding some Atrazine, or something close to that, anyway.
The manufacturer of the seeds didn’t say that they necessarily needed to do that, but that they did. Which mean that– You can either assume that farmers are acting randomly and in an irrational manner, or rather that they looked at the …(inaudible) on the ground and said, “GMO manufacturers said I can do this, but you know what, I gotta spice this up and use more Atrizine.” And they’re doing it even more so now.
So we aren’t really in a world of pure GMO, glyphosate corn growing in Illinois. We’re close to that, but moving more in the direction of let’s put some spice into the recipe. Have I costed that out? No, not yet. But, clearly, the minimum cost would be another run across the fields plus the product cost of Atrazine per GMO farmer per year.