USDA Decision Slows Weed-control Technology Registration Process

May 20, 2013 07:53 AM
USDA Decision Slows Weed-control Technology Registration Process

Industry leaders encourage farmers to provide input to the Agency during public meetings.

John Davis switches back-and-forth between two different hats as he evaluates the decision announced last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The agency says it will conduct two environmental impact statements (EIS) on transgenic corn, soybean and cotton crops designed to tolerate 2,4-D and dicamba.

When he puts on his consumer hat, Davis says he understands the concerns some members of the American public have about the registration process and use of transgenic technology.

"In the end, the consumer is who we have to think about in all this, their concerns; I try to be very considerate of that," says Davis, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat near Delaware, Ohio.

However, when Davis puts on his farmer hat, he wonders who is looking out for the best interests of agriculture.

"I can understand the EPA or FDA having reservations about these products and wanting the impact study. But the USDA? They’re supposed to be on my side," he says.

The USDA-APHIS decision has been criticized by some members of the agricultural industry, including the American Soybean Association (ASA), the collective voice of 21,000 U.S. soybean producers.

Soybean farmer and ASA president, Danny Murphy, Canton, Miss., says the agency has no scientific rational for its decision.

"Even in APHIS' own press release, the agency cites the sustained, safe use of 2,4-D since the 1940s and dicamba since 1967," Murphy states in an ASA press release issued last week.

Davis has similar views. "I’d like to have scientifically backed data on why this has to go into an environmental impact study. I don’t think that’s too much to ask," says Davis, past president of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association.

The agency decision to conduct the environmental impact statements appears to have less to do with 2,4-D and dicamba and more to do with the genetically engineered seed developed to resist the herbicides, according to a USDA-APHIS press release: "Under the National Environmental Policy Act, APHIS is required to evaluate the potential environmental impacts that could result from a deregulation of new GE plants by the Agency."

The agency reports it received a total of 8,200 comments and 400,000 petition signatures on two USDA APHIS comment period dockets specific to the Dow AgroSciences Enlist Weed Control System, which is based on 2,4-D and glyphosate. The dockets were for Enlist corn and Enlist soybeans.

USDA-APHIS also received 500 individual comments and 31,000 form letters regarding the Roundup Ready Xtend Crop System developed in cooperation between Monsanto and BASF. The system features Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans, which will contain stacked traits with tolerance to dicamba and glyphosate.

Hugh Grant, Monsanto chief executive officer, says the USDA-APHIS decision will have little impact on the registration timing for the Roundup Ready Xtend Crop System, which he says is slated for the mid-decade.

"The ramification is we will do more (farmer) trials," he says.

Damon Palmer, U.S. Commercial Leader for the Enlist Weed Control System, says the USDA-APHIS decision will delay the launch of the new Enlist system, which was slated for 2014 in corn. Now, Palmer anticipates a 2015 launch for both corn and soybeans.

He notes that Dow AgroSciences already has secured corn import approvals from countries including Japan, Taiwan, South Africa, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.

Palmer says U.S. farmers will be able to participate this summer in a broad range of programs that showcase the efficacy of the Enlist Weed Control System. These include five newly created technology centers in the Midwest and the South, where growers and retailers will be able to participate in interactive, field-based training designed to familiarize them with the system. The company also will offer small Enlist field plots at various locations and also on-farm "experience plots" to demonstrate the product.

"I want to reiterate to farmers that Dow is committed to working with USDA to get this technology in their hands to solve the problems in their fields today," Palmer says.

While technology providers work to introduce new products to the marketplace, farmers like Davis struggle to keep glyphosate-resistant weeds at bay in their fields.

"Fortunately, I don’t have a carpet of them like some people. Just patches here and there," Davis says.

A 2012 BASF survey reports that approximately 50% of U.S. farmers are experiencing some level of weed resistance in their fields today. In addition, the company notes that approximately 57% of the corn and soybean acres in the United States are affected by two of the toughest to control weeds, waterhemp and Palmer amaranth.

Davis keeps resistant weeds at bay with best management practices such as crop rotation, using herbicides with multiple modes of action and mapping fields to identify and target problem areas. He says some farmers in his area have had to resort to tillage to control weeds, a step he hasn’t taken and one that flies in the face of stewardship practices many farmers say they want to implement.

"I’m out here trying to control weeds with best management practices, but I need access to technology, too," Davis says.

Monsanto’s Grant says the USDA-APHIS decision puts some farmers and consumers at odds with each other. The Save Our Crops Coalition, which includes growers and processors of tomatoes, grapes and other specialty fruits and vegetables, says it is pleased that the agency is undertaking the EIS.

Notes Grant: "At some point these lines cross. The unfortunate thing is the lack of awareness (by consumers) of the pressure that’s on growers to produce more on the same acre of land. The awareness of that is very, very low. That’s the untold piece of this story."

To make sure their story is told, industry leaders are encouraging farmers to talk with their local congressmen and to also provide input to USDA-APHIS. The agency will host public meetings on the EIS during which time farmers will be able to comment. Those meetings will be publicized through the Federal Register and the agency’s Web site.


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