OMAHA (DTN) -- Zack Rendel is walking a little lighter on his feet this week after EPA reversed course and announced on March 29 that farmers in 134 previously banned counties may use Enlist herbicides in 2022.
"I can't tell you how big a weight came off my shoulders," the Miami, Oklahoma, farmer told DTN. Rendel will now be able to use Corteva Agriscience's 2,4-D-choline herbicides on his soybean acres, which are devoted to the Enlist E3 platform this year. "I can't be quite as excited as I want to be, though, because I know there are still farmers out there who will not be able to spray it in counties that are still banned," he added.
About 40 counties in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Tennessee and south-central Texas still face these county-level prohibitions due to risks to certain endangered species, confirmed Corteva's U.S. Marketing Lead Cynthia Ericson. "We're continuing to work on generating and providing data to EPA ... and continue to pursue getting more of those counties back on label," she told DTN.
And don't expect Rendel to relax anytime soon.
"We just jumped a big hurdle that came out of nowhere," Rendel said of the EPA's release of the new Enlist labels in January, with county-level restrictions that took the industry off guard. "We're good for now, but what's the next chemical we have to worry about losing because of the Endangered Species Act?"
It's a question on a lot of minds in agriculture, as EPA unrolls a new policy of fully complying with the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which means evaluating risks to every listed species and critical habitat for new active ingredients -- and for chemicals up for re-registration, such as the Enlist herbicides were.
The goal is pesticide registrations that will be less vulnerable to lawsuits and, as a result, more reliably available to farmers, representatives from Corteva and EPA told DTN. Other commonly used herbicides, such as glyphosate and atrazine, are in the final stages of the ESA evaluations now, and some, such as dicamba, are slotted to begin this year.
In some ways, these sources noted, the Enlist label rollercoaster was unique, namely in the quick turnaround by the agency and the timing of the decision so close to spray season. But other aspects of it, such as the county-level bans and other new label rules, are indeed the new normal for farmers and pesticide use.
THE NEW NORMAL
EPA is in new regulatory territory as it actively works with regulatory partners, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, to create a work map that will create a predictable path through endangered species risk assessments, noted Rod Snyder, agriculture advisor to the EPA. "It will shed a lot of light on what we think we can do, what timelines we're looking at, mechanisms we would follow, and schedules of registration reviews," he said. (See more on what EPA's new policy of complying with the Endangered Species Act means here: https://www.dtnpf.com/…)
But for now, it's hard for farmers and industry to know exactly what lies ahead, Corteva's Ericson noted.
"We're kind of in uncharted water the entire Endangered Species Act," she said. "We'll have to learn as we go and learn what EPA needs from us."
For Rendel, the most startling experience was discovering that old and trusted chemistries, such as 2,4-D, might face new and unforeseen restrictions, as they wind their way through endangered species risk assessments. "That's the thing that puts me on heightened alert," he explained. "2,4-D has always been one of the safest pesticides I've used. It's one I never thought would be on the radar."
And indeed, many of the things on the Enlist labels, such as county-level prohibitions on use and "pick lists" of drift and run-off mitigations, such as riparian buffers, are likely to surface on other pesticide labels moving forward, Snyder said.
"The Enlist label was, in some respects, a very early example of trying to address those ESA concerns through the re-registration process rather than waiting on a court order," he said, noting that, "in the long term, we believe it will create more predictability and stability to these registrations and more legal defensibility."
Ericson agreed. "The good news is we have what we think is a legally defensible label, and it is worth the additional time in hopes that it provides better certainty for farmers that the products they use will be here and not taken to the courts over the ESA."
WHAT WAS UNIQUE TO ENLIST
The unveiling of county-level bans on the new Enlist labels, which took farmers off guard in January, was far from ideal, Ericson conceded. The company hopes it's not a scenario that will be repeated again.
"The reality was that we were working on collecting that data, but ran out of time on Jan. 11," when the old Enlist labels expired, she explained.
Corteva worked swiftly through the winter months to generate and supply new data to EPA on the endangered species in question, the American Burying Beetle and the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, and asked the agency to re-open the registration and consider it.
At the same time, EPA's partner agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, provided EPA with updated range maps for those two species, Snyder noted, which removed much of the risks to them in 134 of the banned counties.
That's largely why EPA was able to move decisively to put those counties back on the label, Snyder explained. "The science was crystal clear," he noted. But the speed with which EPA moved toward a March release of those label changes was a testament to the agency's awareness of the unique pressures on farmers this season, he added.
"There was real commitment in this instance to do whatever we could to address this year's growing season," he noted. "Also, there are clearly supply chain concerns that we have heard loud and clear from the grower community."
FARMERS MAY HAVE NEWFOUND ACCESS TO EPA
Snyder has noted before that the Enlist labels provoked robust lobbying from ag trade and commodity groups, state agriculture officials and farmers. (See more here: https://www.dtnpf.com/…). That this advocacy may have helped convince the agency of the urgency of the situation impressed Rendel.
"I think the voice of the American farmer is a lot bigger than some people think -- even us fringe acre farmers," he said. "It was amazing to see so many of the ag groups go to bat for us."
As EPA navigates a new regulatory path on endangered species, farmers and ag stakeholders do have a unique chance to make their voice heard, Snyder noted. The 2018 farm bill created an interagency work group to help EPA integrate ESA compliance into its regulatory framework, he noted. That working group has already conducted its first listening sessions on its new ESA policy in January, which netted 700 participants, many from agricultural backgrounds.
"That was an extremely valuable session for all the agencies to get a sense of where folks in ag and the environmental community are with how they view these issues and where they think there are opportunities for improvement," Snyder said. "And all of that has contributed to the work plan that is now under development. We're committed to this in a really significant way."
See more on that listening session here: https://www.epa.gov/….
Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.firstname.lastname@example.org
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