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Nothing To Hide

Forty-five years may have dimmed a frame or two of memory, but I can still see my father emptying small bags of flour-like powder into a five-gallon bucket and then, slowing stirring in a trickle of water until the two ingredients combined to make a chalky, white cream. The bags contained the still-new, pre-emergent herbicide atrazine.

I also recall him sometimes stirring the creamy mix with a bare arm to ensure all the lumps of fine powder had dissolved fully. Afterwards he’d just rinse off the white skim – in the bucket, of course – waste not – and continue with his weed-killing ways.

Today, no farmer can be found elbow deep into any container of pesticide, herbicide or fungicide. Back then, however, a decade before anyone ever heard the phrase “environmental protection agency,” agriculture was climbing the learning curve on how everyone was about to live better through chemistry.

And we did; a gazillion weeds never raised their nutrient-sucking heads in our cornfields. Dad killed ’em in their crib with help from Mr. Ciba and Mr. Geigy.

That’s still the case. Atrazine, according to latest USDA data, remains the most widely used farm herbicide in the nation. An estimated 76.4 million pounds were used that year – 86 per cent in corn production.

But atrazine is bigger than America. Syngenta, Ciba’s successor, and competitors sell it in 80 nations. Ironically, the European Union, Swiss-based Syngenta’s backyard, bans atrazine. The EU halted sales in 2004 over what it describes as atrazine’s persistent groundwater contamination.

Curiously, that ban came just a year after the U. S. EPA’s “Interim Reregistration Eligibility Decision” all but raised atrazine to sainthood. “The total or national economic impact resulting from the loss of atrazine,” noted EPA then, “would be in excess of $2 billion per year…”

But this and subsequent analyses didn’t – can’t – address new environmental concerns. Between 2003 and 2005, EPA surface and groundwater testing found 94 of 136 public water systems in 10 states contained atrazine at levels higher than EPA’s three parts per billion standard.

More recently, research by Tyrone Hayes, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, indicates that atrazine concentrations 30 times less than EPA’s three ppb has caused dramatic changes in the reproduction systems of amphibians. In lectures around the country, Hayes, a Harvard-trained biologist, notes that “a half-million pounds of atrazine fall in rainwater every year in the U. S.” and that “1.2 million pounds flow into the Gulf of Mexico” annually.

Last October, EPA announced another detailed examination of atrazine.

In January, 53 farm groups rose to atrazine’s defence by claiming EPA was “politicizing” the review process. On May 3, the Wall Street Journal chimed in with a loud editorial that claimed the review will cause “(s)ome farmers to go out of business or ask the federal government for more subsidies.”

Nonsense. Does anyone anywhere seriously believe EPA would conduct a review of the most widely used herbicide in global agriculture that wouldn’t be “transparent, peer-reviewed science,” as the farm groups demanded? Does anyone honestly think the review itself will wipe out U. S. farmers?

Good grief. If sound science is the goal, as the farm groups and Journal insist, then atrazine has nothing to hide in the review. Until it’s completed, however, both need to get their arms out of the bucket.

Alan Guebert is an award-winning freelance agricultural

journalist based in Illinois.

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