A House hearing on herbicide-resistant weeds shed light and generated heat but, unfortunately, provided little in the way of concrete solutions to the burgeoning problem in U.S. row crop fields.

Provocatively titled “Are ‘superweeds’ an outgrowth of USDA biotech policy?” the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, Domestic Policy Subcommittee hearing Sept. 30 was chaired by Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich.

Who has authority?

Kucinich, in an attempt to determine what oversight and powers the USDA has — or believes itself to have — with regard to resistant weeds and herbicide-tolerant crops, tangled early on with Ann Wright, USDA deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.

Kucinich brought up Section 412 of the Plant Protection Act. Wright, obviously uncomfortable in the spotlight, displeased the legislator with several evasive responses to his questions.

Section 412 “covers your authority to prevent the spread of ‘noxious weeds,’” said Kucinich to Wright, while pushing the view that USDA has more oversight power than it is currently exercising. “Section 412 gives the secretary (of agriculture) authority to prohibit, or restrict, the movement of any plant if the secretary determines the prohibition or restriction is necessary to prevent the dissemination of a noxious within the United States.

“Noxious weeds are defined by the statute … as ‘any plant or plant product that can directly, or indirectly, injure or cause damage to crops…’

To see Section 412, visit 412

Section 412, insisted Kucinich, provides the USDA broad authority to restrict the use of Roundup resistant crops “if sound science determines that those restrictions are necessary to prevent the spread of Roundup-resistant, noxious weeds.”

Kucinich: “How can you come to Congress and insist that, effectively, Section 412 doesn’t even exist?”

Wright tried to deflect the question. “This USDA is very committed to looking at all our programs and policies and ensuring they’re for all forms of agriculture.”

Kucinich interrupted, “I know this is your first time before a committee. And I do appreciate you being here. I asked you a question and I’d like an answer. (You) were not responsive.”

The USDA, said Wright, interprets “our existing authorities as those focused on plant/pest risk. Back in March 2009, we issued a set of updates to our rules and regulations that expanded our authorities into the Noxious Weed Act (see Act).

“We’re now looking at 66,000 comments on those rule updates. This is a new administration, and we’ll be looking at the full range of comments that came in and look very carefully at where our authorities are.”

Kucinich pounced: “Are you familiar with Section 412 of the act?”

Wright admitted she wasn’t.

“You’re really not?” said Kucinich, who ordered committee staff to provide Wright with a copy of the statute. “If the regulatory agency isn’t fully familiar with the extent of its authority that may (explain) one of the difficulties we’re having here.”

By now, he continued, the USDA “understands the problem of ‘superweeds’ is a crisis. What I don’t understand — and it defies comprehension — is that the department has the legal ability to help farmers deal with the crisis and prevent it from worsening and … hasn’t made a decision to use that authority.”

 

Perspective

Several of those testifying walked back the alarmist tone of the hearing.

Jay Vroom, president of CropLife America, the organization representing the nation’s farm chemical manufacturers, pointed to three essential points to understand weed resistance to herbicides and the need for best management practices to minimize the potential for resistance development:

• Herbicide resistance occurs naturally, and best management practices need to be applied in ensuring that resistance development is avoided or delayed.

• The market can and will facilitate the development of solutions to combat the issue of weed resistance in crop production to ensure production of safe, affordable, and plentiful food.

• The current regulatory framework for herbicides is robust.

For more on Vroom’s work, see NPDES

Monsanto, which brought farmers wildly popular Roundup Ready crops starting in the mid-1990s, has come in for criticism as the corporate vector in the current rise of glyphosate-resistant weeds. When Roundup Ready crops were first introduced, the company downplayed warnings that an increase in resistant weeds would surely follow.

Phil Miller, Monsanto’s vice president of global regulatory, told the subcommittee the hearing was important.

“World population is growing,” said Miller. “In the next 40 years, or so, there will 9 billion people on our planet. … That’s the equivalent of three more Chinas.

“Farmers are increasingly being asked to produce more with less. Helping them do that is what Monsanto is all about.

“Our company has a commitment to sustainable agriculture. We’ll do our part to help farmers double yields in core crops of corn, cotton and soybeans between 2000 and 2030 while producing each bushel or bale with a third fewer resources.”

Miller also said the Roundup Ready system made the “adoption of conservation tillage practices feasible. … Before the Roundup Ready system was introduced, the environmental benefits of con-till were documented but adoption by growers had been limited. The broad enrollment of the Roundup Ready system has led to the reduction of plowing and tillage which has significantly reduced the loss of topsoil, reduced erosion, improved soil structure, reduced run-off of sediment and fertilizer, reduced on-farm fuel use, reduced CO2 emissions and increased carbon sequestration in the soil.”

 

Drift

Herbicide drift is a common, persistent problem for farmers. Steve Smith, director of agriculture for Red Gold Tomato (the largest privately-held canned tomato processor in the United States), told the subcommittee the problem will only be exacerbated if more herbicide-tolerant crops are grown. He was especially worried about dicamba-tolerant soybeans in the Midwest.

“Our concerns about the upcoming increased use of dicamba aren’t just about tomatoes but all fruit and vegetable crops and rural homeowners living near local farms,” said Smith. “The use of dicamba isn’t new — it’s effective, is a great weed-killer and economical to apply.

“So, many may wonder why a product that’s effective, proven and economical isn’t the number one herbicide in use today. It’s very simple: dicamba has also proven itself to move off-target and injure adjoining crops. So, it isn’t currently widely in use.”

New agricultural technologies should be pursued but “must be examined for unintended consequences,” said Smith, who reminded that conventional wisdom once said “it was a good idea to use lead in paint.

“The theory of dicamba-tolerant soybeans may appear sound on the surface. Its ability to kill weeds is proven. But the potential damage to sectors of agriculture and rural homeowners demands we take a closer look at this particular advance.”

Widespread use of dicamba “is incompatible” with Midwestern agriculture as the product “is highly vulnerable to offsite movement in three forms: direct drift, volatilization and spray-tank contamination.”

This is not an idle concern. Over the last four years, Smith said, Red Gold has suffered over $1 million in drift claims.

Dicamba’s propensity towards volatilization makes it a “danger” to Midwestern agriculture. “Volatilization occurs when the active ingredient evaporates and can then be moved with the surrounding air mass for up to four days after applications,” said Smith. “Its killing capabilities can spread up to two miles, or more.

“Even the best, most conscientious farmers can’t control or predict what will happen four days after application. Ironically, the very conditions that minimize direct drift actually maximize volatilization: little or no wind, high temperatures and high humidity. (Those are) normal conditions for when this product is applied in June and July.”

Smith put little stock in company claims that new formulations of dicamba lessen the threats. “We believe those claims to be overly optimistic as even the new formulations are still proving to move off-target.”

If such formulation claims are sound and dicamba-tolerant soybeans are adopted, Smith said, those “who will profit from the sale of this seed technology — and the makers of dicamba — should willingly step up and establish an indemnity fund to cover crop losses and homeowner claims for damages.”

 

Disconnected oversight

Bill Freese, Center for Food Safety science policy analyst, wasn’t buying claims made during the hearing that herbicide-tolerant crops would lessen world hunger and boost crop productivity.

“Actually, Roundup Ready crops do not have higher yields,” testified Freese. “Basically, they are designed to save time, labor and help farmers get bigger. And there is also an increase in the use of pesticides with these crops rather than a decrease. As for the conservation tillage benefits mentioned, conservation tillage was mostly adopted before the introduction of Roundup Ready crops.”

Freese reminded the subcommittee that in 1997, just as Roundup Ready crops were being introduced, “Monsanto scientists published a paper in which they presented all the many reasons weeds were not likely to evolve resistance to glyphosate. That wasn’t the first time they’ve been wrong and, of course, they turned out to be disastrously wrong.”

Now, companies involved with crops tolerant to multiple herbicides “assure us” the technology “is the solution to glyphosate-resistant weeds. DuPont, for instance, envisions a single crop resistant to seven or more different classes of herbicides. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in resistance genes to about every herbicide imaginable, including paraquat. About half of the genetically engineered (GE) crops pending deregulation at USDA are herbicide-resistant.

“We shouldn’t let ourselves be misled once again. These new herbicide-resistant crops are the wrong response to glyphosate-resistant weeds. One reason: they simply won’t work. At best, we’ll get a short-term reprieve until nature cleverly evolves resistance to the new, multiple herbicides deployed against them.”

Freese, backing up Kucinich’s obvious leanings towards increased oversight, said, “It’s very clear that the glyphosate-resistant weed epidemic is a symptom of regulatory breakdown. We have a USDA, which regulates an herbicide resistant crop and the EPA that (regulates) the herbicide. But no one regulates the combination. … It is the system — the continual use of glyphosate on Roundup Ready crops — that is responsible for the growing epidemic of resistant weeds.

“This system has been presented to farmers as self-contained, two component: seed and Roundup. And that’s the way it has been used. I’m tired of people blaming farmers for this.”

For written testimonies and more of the hearing, see hearing