CHEMICALS:

New industry-backed study refires debate over atrazine ban

Agribusiness groups today released a new study, sponsored by the producer of the herbicide atrazine, that predicts significant economic fallout in rural areas should U.S. EPA ban the weedkiller following a review of its health effects.

University of Chicago economist Don Coursey unveiled his study alongside the Triazine Network, an alliance of corn and sorghum interests pushing back against EPA's move to re-examine atrazine after new studies linked it to sexual abnormalities in frogs. Coursey's research, backed by atrazine company Syngenta AG, estimated that banning the herbicide would amount to a $450 million annual hit to Illinois' farm economy.

Banning atrazine is "going to take away income for a group of people," Coursey said, likening it to a "pure tax" on farmers. "These communities," he said, "are already under stress."

Triazine Network Chairman Jere White, who also heads corn- and sorghum-growing groups in Kansas, blasted EPA for reopening its risk assessment of atrazine last year based on "activist media reports." The agency said that concerns about the human health consequences of low levels of atrazine exposure, particularly through drinking water, prompted its new scientific review (Greenwire, Oct. 7, 2009).

White was equally critical of the possibility that atrazine use could be curtailed nationally, in line with local limits already in place in some states. "As you lower rates [of permitted atrazine application], you take different weeds off the control label," he said. "If you make the product ineffective to control weeds, you've effectively banned the product."

Atrazine is often used to protect lawns and golf courses as well as crops such as corn and sorghum. That frequent application has also made the weedkiller a common drinking water contaminant in Midwestern communities, several of which have joined a class-action lawsuit accusing Syngenta of tainting local water supplies.

Environmental and farmworker groups hailed EPA's reopening of the atrazine review and have kept the pressure on the agency to resist industry lobbying (Greenwire, Jan. 6).

Several of those advocates described the new Triazine Network study as a sign that Syngenta is "prioritizing its own bottom line at the expense of farmers' bottom line," in the words of Land Stewardship Project policy organizer Bobby King.

"Syngenta does not have farmers' best interests in mind and never has," said King, whose group represents rural and urban supporters of sustainable agriculture. "Farmers in Europe are growing corn profitably with almost no yield loss, because [atrazine] is banned in Europe, and many farmers in America are doing the same thing."

Kathryn Gilje, executive director of the Pesticide Action Network, noted that Coursey released a similar Syngenta-commissioned report on the costs of banning atrazine in 2007. That study predicted that Illinois corn growers could take a hit as high as $555 million annually if the weedkiller were pulled from the market.

"The Triazine Network is an front group for big ag trade groups founded to protect atrazine from regulation in the U.S. and that is exactly what they're doing here," Gilje said through a spokeswoman. "This study -- like the group's previous studies -- is far from independent in its analysis."

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