Enter Stage Right

Activists Take the Reins at EPA

Former Director of Research and Education, Center for Global Food Issues
Former Senior Fellow

The Environmental Protection Agency, in a George Orwellian move, has just announced that it has suddenly decided to put the herbicide atrazine through yet another regulatory wringer, despite having just completed a comprehensive, multi-year regulatory review of the safety of atrazine begun in 1994. Only three months ago the EPA announced that after reviewing hundreds of scientific studies, atrazine "is not likely to cause cancer in humans" and does not affect the reproductive development of frogs and other amphibians. Atrazine has been used safely for more than 50 years in the U.S. and has been upheld as safe by the World Health Organization and the governments of Canada, France, the UK and others.

The timing suggests that politics is the overriding concern. Atrazine was already slated for a 2010 human health review, but no such headline impact has ever been found. The new team didn't dare bet on finding a human health flaw now. Instead, they decided to re-do the just-completed review process, betting that they can produce enough new smoke to deregister atrazine on some lesser charge. Since the review process still requires a series of expert review panels, EPA needed to start immediately or risk losing their Obama chance.

Atrazine is one of the most widely used herbicides, helping farmers control weeds while protecting topsoil from erosion via no-plow and other conservation cropping methods. Without herbicides, farmers must use plows and other bare-earth weed control methods that lead to far greater soil erosion and far more fossil fuel use. Atrazine is a critical tool in the no-plow revolution: it helps combat resistance to other weed killers, maintain high soil organic carbon levels in our fields (supposedly something the EPA promotes) and protects rivers and streams from sediment pollution (another environmental good). Economic studies show atrazine provides more than $2 billion in direct economic benefits to our nation, even beyond the benefits in soil sustainability and stream pollution prevention.

So why should you care if farmers lose atrazine? Because it will mean higher food costs, more soil erosion, less sustainable farming, and more environmental degradation. It'll mean putting more of our farming eggs in fewer baskets. As we've learned with the unwelcome but inevitable return of bed bugs to our major cities, needlessly eliminating pesticides from society's toolbox leaves us more vulnerable to the scourges of nature.

With world population still growing and overall food demand set to double over the next 40 years, we need all the farming tools we have (and more) just to keep our heads above the rising tide of farm product demand. We're all in this struggle together and the farmer's loss hits our environment and pocketbooks.

The atrazine witch hunt is being driven primarily by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a powerful eco-activist group that simply won't take no for an answer. Review after review by the EPA, starting in the 1980s, has found that atrazine poses no health risk to humans or other risk to wildlife. Yet the NRDC knows that actual evidence is simply unnecessary; all they need is enough concocted public fear to cow the EPA into reacting to the politics.

They've done it before. Nearly twenty years ago, the NRDC perpetrated one of the biggest scams ever on the American public, claiming that a product called alar, used in growing apples, was the "most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply." NRDC ranted that alar was a "cancer-causing agent used on food that the EPA knows is going to cause cancer for thousands of children." Alar, it turns out, was far less a cancer risk than tap water or peanut butter, as the EPA's own Scientific Advisory Panel finally ruled.

Why did NRDC perpetrate the fraud? According to boasts from the NRDC's public relations firm, it was all an elaborate (and highly successful) fundraising scheme. When their lies were exposed—sadly too late to save mass parental anguish over supposedly poisonous apple juice or to save apple farmers tens of millions in market losses—the NRDC equivocated. "We never said there was an immediate danger," they said as they laid blame on journalists who "muddled" their report and the public who "overreacted."

The NRDC is now trying to do to atrazine what they did to alar. Make no mistake, the NRDC (and current political operators within the EPA) will continue to go back to the scientific wishing well until they "frighten" the EPA into banning atrazine. This time around, the herbicides makers and corn farmers aren't backing down. Will we stand up with them for sound science, or allow the further politicization of our regulatory agencies?