U.S. EPA to require weed-resistance restrictions on glyphosate

Reuters — U.S. regulators will put new restrictions on the world’s most widely used herbicide to help address the rapid expansion of weeds resistant to the chemical, Reuters has learned.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed it will require a weed resistance management plan for glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s immensely popular Roundup herbicide.

The agency has scheduled a conference call for next week with a committee of the Weed Science Society of America to discuss what the final plan for glyphosate should entail, said Larry Steckel, a Tennessee scientist who chairs the committee.

An EPA spokeswoman declined to give specifics of the plan, but told Reuters that its requirements will be similar to those placed on a new herbicide product developed by Dow AgroSciences, a unit of Dow Chemical.

Requirements for the Dow herbicide include weed monitoring, farmer education and remediation plans. The company is required to provide extensive reporting to the EPA about instances of weed resistance and to let “relevant stakeholders” know about the difficulties of controlling them via a company-established website.

Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord would not discuss whether the company was negotiating a plan with regulators, but said Monsanto “will continue to work with the EPA to ensure proper product stewardship as we move through the regulatory process.”

At least 14 weed species and biotypes in the U.S. have developed glyphosate resistance, affecting more than 60 million acres of U.S. farmland, according to data gathered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. weed scientists. The herbicide-resistant weeds hinder crop production and make farming more difficult and expensive.

The EPA’s action comes in the wake of a finding by the World Health Organization’s cancer research unit this month that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” a conclusion the working group said was based on a review of years of scientific research. Testing has found residues of the herbicide in water, food, urine and breast milk.

The EPA’s weed management plan will not address human health concerns, but the agency is also analyzing health data as part of a required reevaluation of the herbicide.

The EPA’s preliminary risk assessment of glyphosate is expected to be released for public comment later this year, and the agency will publish its proposed weed management plan for public comment at the same time.

Regulators in the U.S. and many other countries have long considered glyphosate among the safest herbicides in use. A review of the chemical by the German government for the European Union last year concluded that no link to cancer has been established.

And Monsanto, which held the patent on glyphosate until 2000 and last year sold more than US$5 billion of Roundup herbicide, says the weed-killing agent has been proven safe repeatedly. Last week, the company blamed “agenda-driven groups” for fuelling false reports about glyphosate.

But the chemical’s critics, including environmentalists, scientists and opponents of genetically modified foods, hope the WHO finding will help convince the EPA that tighter controls on the herbicide are needed, not just to prevent the growth of herbicide-resistant weeds, but also to protect human health.

On March 26, a coalition of public interest groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Food Safety sent a letter to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy urging the agency to “weigh heavily” WHO’s finding as it prepares its risk assessment.

Huge ramifications

How the EPA chooses to handle glyphosate is a closely watched issue for the agricultural industry.

Globally, the herbicide is a key ingredient in more than 700 products and is used to control weeds in gardens, along roadsides and on millions of acres of farmland.

Steckel said his committee will express some concerns in its call with the EPA next week. Specifically, he said, the group sees shortcomings in the management plant the agency has for Dow AgroSciences and would like a glyphosate plan that allows for state-specific provisions.

“We are here on the ground, and we think we could tailor things to have more impact than just one overarching plan from the federal government…,” said Steckel, a row crop weed specialist at the University of Tennessee. “We have to preserve these herbicides. There really are no new ones.”

At least 283.5 million pounds of glyphosate were used in U.S. agriculture in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, up from 110 million pounds in 2002, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 90 per cent of the soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. last year, and 89 per cent of the corn, was genetically modified to withstand herbicide applications.

– Carey Gillam is a Reuters correspondent covering agriculture and agribusiness from Kansas City.

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