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Country Corner

EPA workplan won’t work for farmers

As growers head into spring, there’s a new level of uncertainty surrounding the availability of essential crop protection tools. Unlike recent years, the concern isn’t related to supply chain issues. This uncertainty is coming straight from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Cue the collective groan.

Growers are once again faced with a dicamba dilemma just ahead of planting season. The label for over-the-top applications was vacated in February by a federal court in Arizona, though EPA quickly provided a stopgap by allowing existing stocks to be used this spring. The future outlook is still unknown, but at least the short-term threat has been averted.

What’s even more concerning, however, are longer-term, sweeping changes to EPA’s approach to registering and regulating all agricultural pesticides. A decade’s worth of laborious litigation is finally coming to a head for the agency, which has been under pressure to bring its pesticide program into compliance with the Endangered

Species Act (ESA). EPA acknowledged that it hasn’t completely fulfilled its ESA obligations for years, leaving the agency open to multiple lawsuits. The court case that broke the proverbial camel’s back is a “megasuit” filed in 2011, alleging the EPA improperly approved 35 active ingredients in violation of the ESA. In a September 2023 settlement, EPA agreed to drop its arduous approach to evaluating pesticides and create a new plan to bring registrations into ESA compliance with separate strategies for herbicides, rodenticides, insecticides and fungicides.

The first of these, EPA’s herbicide strategy, was due May 30. Just last month, however, the deadline was pushed to Aug. 30 to give the agency more time to review public comments on the proposed strategy. The problem is that this multi-faceted workplan is, well, unworkable. It’s based on a complex “points” system that requires mitigation measures such as filter strips, grass waterways and field borders before herbicide use, even where threatened and endangered species do not exist.

Herbicides are integral to a farmer’s ability to manage weeds, and, in turn, maintain profitability.

Admittedly, that’s an oversimplification. For more details, the framework and supporting documents are online at regulations.gov/docket/EPA-HQ-OPP-2023-0365. Be sure you’re well rested and have caffeine handy before you attempt to read it. As one of EPA’s most significant proposals to date, the whole thing is about 900 pages.

The plan, as it stands, has received considerable pushback from agricultural stakeholders who have expressed concern over the cumbersome, costly measures that would be required to spray herbicides going forward. For some growers, it may entirely prevent them from using crop protection tools essential to their operations.

If you weren’t aware of EPA’s proposal, I encourage you to learn more about what it would mean for agriculture and keep an eye out for any opportunities to share comments and concerns. Let’s hope common sense prevails. After all, herbicides are integral to a farmer’s ability to manage weeds, and, in turn, maintain profitability.

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