The nation's Weed Science Society organizations are “making a lot of headway” in educating politicians and policymakers on weed issues, says Robert Hedberg.
It has been “an uphill battle,” because most of them don't understand the importance of weeds in U.S. agriculture, “and even those who do often don't understand the importance of weed science,” he said at the recent annual meeting of the Western Weed Science Society at Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
Hedberg, whose position as Washington director of science policy is supported by the six Weed Science Society organizations in the United States, says one of his goals is “to use the recognition my position provides in trying to generate awareness of weed problems and of weed science” to create opportunities for additional funding for weed research and management.
“This should help to open job opportunities for trained weed scientists and help to bring new people into the discipline.”
That work needs to be done to foster greater awareness is indicated, in part, by the fact that many federal weed science programs are headed by entomologists, Hedberg notes. “I think if they fully recognized the value of weed science and weed science training, there'd be fewer entomologists running these programs.”
A recent success for the weed science sector, he says, was the passage of the Federal Plant Protection Act, legislation that has been “20 years in the making.” Ultimately, passage was secured by attaching it to another bill with “very good prospects” for approval.
“To get it passed, we had to get unanimous consent of both Senate and House Agriculture Committees, and a major reason we were able to accomplish this was because of all the awareness-building that has been done over the years by many individual weed scientists and weed science groups.”
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, was instrumental in guiding the legislation to passage, Hedberg said. “He was aware that the Plant Protection Act was only a small piece of the overall issue, and recognized from the outset that funding was the major nut we had to crack.”
A similarly concerted effort will be required to secure passage of legislation aimed at controlling non-native invasive weed species, he says. The bill didn't get through Congress last session, but Sen. Craig and Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., have reintroduced it this year.
This comes on the heels of the observance of the second National Invasive Weed Awareness week, which generated “excellent response,” Hedberg says.
This involved 40 to 50 people from outside Washington, representing a broad geographic constituency, to visit members of Congress and agencies involved in weed management, to call attention to the need for legislation to halt the spread of non-native invasive weeds.
“There was a sense of importance, energy, and enthusiasm surrounding these meetings, briefings, legislative visits, and receptions,” Hedberg said. “There was a lot of mingling and cross-pollination across a lot of different groups — weed science groups, the Nature Conservancy, the Ecological Society of America, livestock groups, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Exotic Plant Pest Council.
“We're going to need to continue building these very broad coalitions and constituencies in order to maintain the momentum we've created on this issue over the past couple of years as we go through the transition to a new administration.”
The effort, Hedberg says, has resulted in a greater awareness of the overall invasive species issue — not just invasive plants, but invasive species in general, including pathogens, exotics, insects, etc.
“We were especially pleased that those who turned out for the meetings were among the key scientists within and outside the federal government. I think we did a great job of fostering awareness of the issues, building credibility for weed science as a scientific discipline, and building bridges to other interest groups and organizations.”
In other developments, Hedberg has been named to a newly-formed advisory committee between the Environmental Protection Agency and the USDA. Tagged CARAT (Committee to Advise on Reassessment and Transition), it will work with the two agencies on pesticide regulation issues related to the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA).
“I think my nomination to this committee presents a very good opportunity for the regional weed science societies and other groups to help deal with some of the controversy surrounding the FQPA,” Hedberg says.
“CARAT will have the very important role of bringing pesticide regulation into the light of day, so there's no more ‘black box’ science going on at the EPA. They're going to have to take their decisions out of the closet and defend them in a very transparent way.”
It will also offer an opportunity to critique and improve the EPA's risk assessment process, he says.
“When they're looking at registering a product, they have 30, 40, or 50 different decisions to make along the whole chain of events, and at every junction — because they're a risk-averse agency — they use the most conservative assumption. You start adding them all together and you get something that's very far divorced from reality.”
For those pesticides that do exceed acceptable risk levels, Hedberg says, “we're hoping we can develop reasonable, practical risk mitigation strategies, something that would fall short of outright cancellation of a pesticide, but would allow fine-tuning of the label to perhaps change use patterns, timing, etc., and still retain the product for its more important uses, while reducing the risks associated with the product.”
It also, he says, “offers Weed Science Societies an opportunity to identify some of the gaps in information and knowledge and to do some research to plug those gaps.”
The Weed Science Societies are the only scientific societies represented on the panel, Hedberg noted.