In recent months, questions about the Obama administration’s promised adherence to scientific integrity have sprung up across the political spectrum. The fact that atrazine, despite having already passed multiple agency reviews, is again in the EPA crosshairs is only adding fuel to the rhetorical fire.
Don Coursey, a University of Chicago economist/professor and indefatigable researcher, waded into the atrazine/EPA fray during a July 7 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve been a professional economist for 30 years and had the opportunity to testify before Congress, to work with the departments of Interior, State and National Intelligence,” said Coursey of his bona fides. “I’ve been involved with a lot of litigation — lawsuits having to do with the environment and energy. I’ve worked for corporations and think tanks. I’ve worked for various NGOs (non-government organizations) and extensively, over my 30-year (career), with the EPA. And I’ve also worked with foreign governments.”
The work has “taken me all over the place intellectually. But one thing that binds all my previous work together is that no one has ever asked me to consider the removal of a safe, well-respected product from the marketplace.”
That is, until five years ago when Syngenta presciently asked Coursey to consider the fallout of losing atrazine in Illinois.
At the time, “I had to sit and scratch my head for a while. I’m not used to thinking about taking something like atrazine off the marketplace — a product that’s been around for 50 years and plays such a big role in U.S. agriculture and in other countries around the world.”
Coursey took on the job (later shifting to calculations looking at a ban not just at Illinois, but nationally) and came to a “basic takeaway point: a ban on atrazine at the national level will have a devastating — devastating — affect upon the U.S. corn economy.”
As for alternative herbicides, “we know atrazine is the least expensive herbicide for dealing with problems farmers face in Illinois. So, moving to an alternative will increase farming costs.”
GM corn also plays a role. “Over the four or five years I’ve worked on this project, we started with 40 percent GMO cropping. Now, we’re up close to 80 percent. Clearly, that’s been going on even without a ban on atrazine. GMO costs are higher than many traditional techniques. They involve glyphosate and, currently, the use of a lot of atrazine.”
If atrazine is lost, whether a farmer opts for an alternative herbicide or moves to GMO technology, “he’d experience yield losses. GMO and alternatives to atrazine will lower corn yields in Illinois.
“If you look at my report, you’ll see I’m reporting ranges. The reason is two-fold: one, it’s scientifically more accurate to report a range; second, the range reflects the various assumptions between what would happen to yield losses were atrazine banned. If atrazine is banned, the range is from ‘a large effect’ to ‘a very large effect.’”
A ban on atrazine in Illinois would mean a $26 to $58 per acre loss in value to corn farmers. “Another way to look at this is to note that if you apply that to total corn acreage in Illinois it would mean losses of between $166 million and $458 million per year.
“These results are corroborated by the fact that EPA, independently of my work, says that a number of $28 per acre is roughly the impact of atrazine on national corn farming.”
Looking at the national picture, Coursey acknowledged states and regions other than Illinois have different growing and climate conditions, “but it’s probably not an overly heroic assumption to apply the similar figure obtained for Illinois: $26 to $58 per acre. If you do that, the total loss to corn farmers following a national ban on atrazine would be between $2.3 billion to $5 billion per year.”
The loss of massive dollar amounts means many jobs would be lost.
“If you look at total GDP and divide by the labor force … you’ll find that each member of the labor force is contributing, on average, about $93,000 to U.S. GDP. Combine that figure with the $2.3 billion to $5 billion per year loss and apply it to the entire labor force. (That shows) a ban on atrazine in the United States would produce a loss of 21,000 to 48,000 jobs at the national level.”
A ban would boost agriculture sector unemployment from the current 12 percent to 14.6 percent, said Coursey. Job losses in the corn-growing sector would be punched even harder with unemployment rates moving from 11 percent to “as much as 25 percent.”
“Every time we do something in the area of policy, there are unintended consequences, there are surprises,” continued Coursey. “There are certain indirect effects that would clearly occur were atrazine to be banned.”
First on the post-atrazine list: conservation tillage.
“We’ve been very successful in this country over the last 25 years in promoting conservation tillage. If atrazine were to be banned,” farmers would be less inclined to use con-till.
“Take atrazine away and growers may not be able to afford conservation till. That would mean more run-off and an unintended consequence of an atrazine ban would perhaps hurt drinking water and other water sources.”
Corn isn’t the only crop reliant on atrazine. “EPA has estimated that atrazine in sugarcane increases yields between 10 and 40 percent per crop. That’s between $89 million and $340 million per year.”
If atrazine were banned in Illinois, the price of corn coming out of the state would go up. “But the farmers would have to eat that (price rise) because corn is sold based on world prices.
“If atrazine is banned at the national level, maybe the whole world price of corn would go up. Illinois isn’t big enough to affect the world price of corn. But the United States as a whole might be able to.”
Coursey warned banning atrazine could lead to a “very complicated chain of cause-and-effect that would spread out over the nation and world. If the world price of corn goes up, that would affect meat production, other (grain prices) such as wheat and rice. One thing is for certain: if the price of corn goes up, the world economy won’t be better.”