Without federal approval to use a special type of weed-eliminating herbidice, Michigan's farmers could lose their competitive advantage, Johnston warns. (John Flesher / AP)
Over the past few years, Michigan farmland has been invaded by 12 separate varieties of “tough weeds” — unruly vegetation that resists the herbicides farmers usually deploy. These weeds can reduce crop yields by 20 percent. The losses to American farmers could soon total $2.5 billion a year.
Fortunately, there are safe and cost-effective technologies that can address this tough-weed problem. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have failed to approve them in a timely manner.
These needless delays not only impede efficient crop production, thereby reducing food supplies and increasing prices at the supermarket — they also give farmers in other countries a competitive advantage.
There’s a lot riding on farmers’ productivity. Global demand for agricultural products is set to double by 2050 — offering American farmers both an opportunity and a challenge. Already, Michigan farmers plant about 2.5 million acres of corn and 2 million acres of soybeans every year, yielding crops worth about $3 billion. Each year, the United States exports about 90 million tons of these crops.
But if farmers are to increase these numbers in order to meet soaring demand, they will need better technology. They certainly can’t stand idly by as weeds ravage 20 percent of their crops.
One particularly promising product currently held up by regulators is a weed control system called Enlist. Enlist includes both an herbicide and seeds that have been genetically designed to tolerate it. This way, the product can kill weeds without harming crops.
The concept has already proven effective. For more than 15 years, farmers have been using a herbicide called glyphosate — better known by its trade name, Roundup — alongside specifically engineered seeds.
The introduction of Roundup allowed farmers to adopt more efficient no-till cultivation methods. By targeting only unwanted weeds, Roundup contributed to a massive increase in the productivity of America’s farmland. When approved, Enlist can continue to advance these benefits.
Yet the Enlist system has been under review at the USDA for approximately 1,400 days – nearly four years — even though the agency, by law, has only 180 days to respond to regulatory filings. In May, the USDA decided to conduct additional environmental reviews that will delay both Enlist and other new herbicide/seed technologies that have been under review. These products now won’t be available to American farmers for at least another year.
There’s no reason these analyses should take so long. For evidence, just look north. Canada approved Enlist in June, and other technologies are on track to launch there soon.
Enlist is also moving through the review process in Brazil. The country, which now grows 40 percent of the world’s soybeans, is quickly becoming a top agriculture producer. Brazilian authorities generally require just two growing seasons to approve new products, compared to the three or four U.S. regulators are taking today. A head start for Brazil could lead to real losses for American farmers.
Here in Michigan, where the food and agriculture industry contributes $91.4 billion to the state economy, such losses would be especially damaging. Our farm sector accounts for about 22 percent of state employment, supporting nearly 73,000 jobs. We can’t allow weeds to strangle such a vital industry.
Modern technology can ensure that they don’t. Enlist and other advanced cropping systems could create 500 additional jobs nationwide and foster the gains in production that are needed to feed the world.
But they can only do so if the federal government lets them. The USDA and the EPA must streamline their approval processes for new products, basing their judgment on sound science rather than fear-mongering.
Acting otherwise would jeopardize the agricultural gains of the past 15 years — and the livelihood of American farmers.
Christopher Johnston is president of the Michigan State Grange.