On Wednesday Dr. Don Coursey, an economist at the University of Chicago, presented findings from a study on the effects of banning atrazine during a briefing at the National Press Club that was sponsored by the Triazine Network.
"The basic takeaway point is that a ban of atrazine at the national level will have a devastating affect on the U.S. corn economy," Coursey said. "The total loss to farmers would be between $2.5 billion and $5 billion a year."
Additionally this could lead to the loss of as many as 48,000 jobs. If those job losses occur within the corn sector, which would likely be where it would happen, that would increase the unemployment rate in that subsection of the economy into the high 30% range.
"That's why I feel justified in using the word devastating," Coursey said. "I would also add that a good 90% to 95% of the impact in the corn sector would be felt by small, rural family farms."
Those numbers don't factor in potential losses to other crop sectors that depend on atrazine such as the sorghum industry and sugarcane. The second most-used herbicide in the U.S., atrazine has been a mainstay in corn, sorghum and sugarcane production for 50 years.
"If atrazine is banned producers would also lose propazine, which is another important triazine herbicide for sorghum," said Gerald Simonsen, chairman of the National Sorghum Producers and sorghum grower in Ruskin, Neb. "Because there are fewer alternative herbicides available for sorghum, taking atrazine off the market would have a dramatic and costly impact on the U.S. sorghum industry."
The Environmental Protection Agency initiated an additional unplanned review of atrazine in 2009 just three years after re-registration of the herbicide, which following more than 6,000 scientific studies. EPA cited a New York Times article that voiced claims by anti-atrazine groups as the basis for this, marking the first time in history that they have started a review process without citing sound science.
"Atrazine is the most thoroughly tested herbicide used in agriculture today, and EPA itself re-registered the product just four years ago, after more than a decade of intensive scientific study," said National Council of Farmer Cooperative President and CEO Chuck Conner. "Farmers across the country depend on atrazine and products containing it to increase their yield to meet the needs of a growing global population while at the same time practicing sound soil and water conservation. It is our hope that EPA will follow the science - not the ideologically-driven agendas of activists - in conducting their review."
Coursey says that a national ban on atrazine would have many unintended consequences, a few of which he outlined during the briefing.
"We have been very successful in this country the last 20 to 25 years in promoting conservation tillage," Coursey said. "Take the atrazine away and farmers may not be able to afford conservation tillage, there's going to be more runoff, which means an unintended consequence of banning atrazine would perhaps hurt drinking water and other water sources."
Another consequence would be sharp reduction in yields of sugarcane and sorghum which would cost those industries millions of dollars and jobs that would have to be added to the data Coursey presented representing only the corn sector.
"Corn is a very important crop to the U.S. economy; it's a very important crop to the world economy," Coursey said. "A ban on atrazine in corn production in the United States would be a pure tax upon corn growers. It's basically going to be taking some of their income away from them."
EPA's own estimates show that without atrazine, U.S. corn producers would lose $28 per acre. When looking at the fact that farmers are growing 88 million acres of corn, that loss is substantial.
"In some areas of public policy you make a change in the marketplace and you might be able to argue that something in another part of the economy will pop up and replace that loss or more than replace that loss," Coursey said. "In the context of a ban on atrazine there is nothing on the horizon that is going to pop up and even balance out the losses that would occur in the farming sector if atrazine were banned."