It became a little clearer earlier this week why the Minnesota Department of Agriculture will tolerate no criticism of the corn herbicide atrazine. On Monday, atrazine’s prime manufacturer, Syngenta, opened a new seed division North American headquarters in Minnetonka. Gov. Tim Pawlenty was on hand to personally thank the CEO of the world’s largest agrichemical firm for choosing Minnesota as the home of the 300-employee facility.
Imagine how embarrassing it would have been if recent efforts to restrict atrazine’s use in the state had been successful? Chances are Syngenta would have threatened to take its office building elsewhere. After all, the company already has to deal with the irony of having its world headquarters located in Switzerland, a country where the use of the herbicide is outright banned.
Atrazine turned 50-years-old this year, and it’s been a major contributor to Syngenta’s immensely profitable business model. It’s helped make the company rich enough that it can build a 116,000-square-foot facility in the Twin Cities at a time when the economy is in the dumps. It’s also given the company the kind of clout needed to influence the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of farm chemicals.
Now the State of Minnesota’s desire to keep respected endocrinologist Tyrone Hayes from giving a talk at a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency conference in 2004 makes sense. He was dis-invited from giving the keynote after concerns were raised his presentation on how low levels of atrazine produce severe health effects in amphibians would offend MDA officials.
Perhaps Syngenta’s expanded Minnesota presence also explains why Paul Wotzka, a hydrologist who had worked for the MDA and MPCA, was told by his superiors he could not testify before a legislative committee in 2007. Wotzka’s studies have shown that atrazine levels were rising in places like the middle branch of the Whitewater River in southeast Minnesota, despite claims by the MDA that voluntary efforts to reduce atrazine applications in vulnerable areas were working. Several weeks after his request to testify had been turned down, Wotzka was fired.
Over time, legislators and average citizens in this state have had an opportunity to learn more about Hayes’ and Wotzka’s research. They’ve also learned that atrazine is being found in areas far from farm country, such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area.
But the fact remains that efforts to put even nominal “non-voluntary” restrictions on where atrazine can be applied have been stymied by the MDA and its agribusiness allies. This, despite the fact that atrazine is now one of the most commonly detected pesticides in water here and around the U.S. Data obtained by the Environmental Working Group show that 17,000 people in Minnesota were exposed to atrazine above state or federal health-based limits between 1998 and 2003. And now Hayes’ research is indicating that even extremely low dosages of the chemical can be harmful.
The New York Times found that in some towns, atrazine concentrations in drinking water have spiked, sometimes for longer than a month, but residents have often not been notified of these spikes. More than 40 water systems in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi and Ohio have sued atrazine’s manufacturers in an attempt to get them to cover the cost of removing the pesticide from drinking water, according to the Times.
That it’s come to this is really too bad. In Wisconsin, widespread atrazine contamination of private wells prompted officials there to to adopt the “Atrazine Rule” in 1991. The rule limits how atrazine can be used in that state and prohibits its use in areas where atrazine contamination is found in groundwater above the federal standard of three parts per billion.
There are now some 100 prohibition areas in Wisconsin covering more than 1.2 million acres. Among other things, the “Atrazine Rule” limits atrazine application rates between April 1 and July 31. Studies since 1991 have shown that atrazine concentrations in Wisconsin wells have declined significantly.
Wisconsin still raises a lot of corn. In fact, farmers throughout the Corn Belt and in the European Union, where atrazine is banned outright, are showing that this crop can be raised with lower amounts of the herbicide—or none at all. Diverse crop rotations, mechanical weed control, cover crop plow-downs, newer herbicides and flame weeding, to name a few, are all proven alternatives to unlimited atrazine use.
Perhaps the biggest irony is that Syngenta and its allies in government argue that it will be farmers who are hurt the most if atrazine’s use is restricted. Actually, as one southwest Minnesota farmer pointed out to me this week, it’s farmers who are on the front lines on this issue.
“It’s our wells that are contaminated first,” he told me. “There’s no question in my mind there needs to be more research—both on whether chemicals like this are harmful as well as on safer alternatives we farmers can use to control weeds.”
But the budgets of the MDA’s sustainable agriculture initiatives are being cut at a time when corn acres, and thus the number of acres exposed to herbicides, are going up.
Gov. Pawlenty told the invited guests on Monday that Sygenta’s new office building in Minnetonka is proof that Minnesota is committed to agriculture. Actually, it may just prove that public officials are committed to not alienating certain very influential agribusiness giants.