Since the onset of spring, one kind of game-changing news after another has reached Iowa farmers. These announcements will affect the third of the state’s farmers who are struggling to control superweeds by using glyphosates and other herbicides. New research revelations, government policy changes and farmers’ own dissatisfactions could radically alter both weed and pollinator management in the Midwest.
The recent convergence of five emerging drivers of change will no doubt impact agribusiness over the coming years: slipping sales of herbicide-tolerant corn seed and associated agrichemicals; new Environmental Protection Agency restrictions on using glyphosates because of difficulties controlling superweeds; a World Health Organization report allegedly linking glyphosate exposure to higher risks of non-Hodgkins lymphoma; and the tripling of the Fish and Wildlife Service target numbers for recovery of imperiled monarch butterflies in Midwestern farmscapes.
Just one of these shifts would have created enough concern among Midwestern farmers. But those already worrying about reduced income relative to rising production costs and liabilities don’t need additional challenges. They need fresh and effective options.
Let’s unpack what has happened. Farmers’ dissatisfaction with rising costs of herbicide-resistant weeds has been evident since 2008. But another superweed, Palmer amaranth, has now arrived in five Iowa counties. By 2004, this weed was already costing Southern farmers $35-40 an acre to control. Now even more tolerant to herbicides, this amaranth costs as much as $150 per acre to control in some states. But EPA’s decision to constrain glyphosate use is not just focused on Palmer amaranth, because a dozen other superweeds also plague 60 million acres of U.S. croplands. As Iowa State University’s Mike Owen conceded, “Simple and convenient tactics are failing rapidly and farmers must diversify, not just the herbicides they use, but everything.”
In March, the WHO claimed a possible link between glyphosate exposure and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Conclusive or not, this report will be hotly debated. But what is not debated is that non-Hodgkins rates in the U.S. have doubled since the 1980s. It has become the fifth-leading cause of cancer in the United States. Farmers’ and farmworkers’ exposure to a variety of stresses already affects their health. Since they are the people who feed America, our agricultural workforce must consider whether additional safeguards are needed to avoid potential health risks.
Farmer dissatisfaction with rising costs and liabilities may be one reason Midwestern farmers have planted 4 percent less corn this year. But such concerns now reach beyond farmers themselves. As declining first quarter corn and chemical sales and stock values came in, Wall Street analysts claimed that biotech and herbicide firms have been dealt “a major blow” because such issues have become “a big concern” that has created “image problems.”
Both Monsanto and Bayer CropScience have recently made significant contributions toward farmland habitat recovery of monarch butterflies and other pollinators. These companies no longer dismiss the need to protect bees or butterflies. They recognize that the numbers of monarch butterflies have declined by as much as 97 percent over the last 15 years. They now want to collaborate with farmers and agencies on forging solutions.
The speed with which new solutions are needed has been accelerating. Director Dan Ashe recently tripled the Fish and Wildlife Service’s goal for recovery of imperiled monarchs. Within five years, Ashe wishes to recruit 300 million butterflies by planting milkweeds for them.
Glyphosate decimation of milkweed in croplands has devastating effects on monarchs because it is the sole host plant for them. But new USDA studies also question whether exposure to the neonicotinoid insecticide, clothianidin, is an additional stressor. Ashe’s new target is so high that agencies and industry cannot simply pay to have new milkweeds propagated if chemicals then damage them once they are established on farmlands.
What’s new about the convergence of these issues is how farmers, USDA agencies, segments of the ag industry and Wall Street now agree that environmental and farmer health are now vital economic concerns. If superweeds fail to be controlled, it will hurt not only imperiled butterflies and bees but also farmers’ operation costs and land values.
We are at a critical moment. With rising risks and diminishing returns, farmers need to collaborate on effective solutions to these problems. Let’s avoid a “perfect storm” by fostering innovations that provide greater yield stability, lower production costs and more consistent, safer weed control.