By DOUG SCHMITZ
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. farmers are raising concerns over the EPA’s recently released proposals regarding its Endangered Species Act commitments under its pesticide program – one of which could significantly hinder or prevent pesticide use on nearly 13 million acres of the nation’s cropland.
“Farmers need the EPA to be complaint with the Endangered Species Act,” Kyle Kunkler, American Soybean Association director of government affairs, told Farm World. “However, the devil is in the details on what it means to be compliant.
“We believe there are ways the EPA can become compliant that allows for the coexistence with agricultural uses of pesticides,” he added. “Unfortunately, these recent Endangered Species Act proposals from the EPA largely to do not align with more science- and data-driven approaches that would allow for this coexistence.”
Under the current strategy, U.S. growers will be required to qualify for exemptions or implement mitigation measures for runoff, erosion and spray drift on fields in areas where endangered species and critical habitats are located, Colleen Willard, National Corn Growers Association director of public policy, production, and sustainability, told Farm World.
“These measures are complex, and are often incredibly difficult and costly,” she said.
Kunkler said the EPA has been sued for noncompliance with the Endangered Species Act many times in recent years, which has resulted in farmers losing tools when federal courts strike down pesticide registrations.
“It is not just important to the EPA that they bring their pesticide program into compliance with the Endangered Species Act, but it is also important to farmers,” he said.
When taking an action that may affect endangered or threatened species, Willard said the Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to consult with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to ensure the action does not jeopardize species, or adversely affect critical habitat.
“This requirement applies to pesticide registrations,” she said. “The EPA must assess the impacts of pesticide use on listed species and critical habitats. Although the Endangered Species Act’s inception was over 50 years ago, until recently, the EPA has not been in compliance.
“This has resulted in countless lawsuits against the agency,” she added. “There is a real threat that growers could lose access to chemistries if the agencies do not fix this problem and come into compliance with the Endangered Species Act.”
She said the EPA’s proposed herbicide strategy is a fundamental change to the review of active ingredients, and the process by which chemistries are made available to growers.
She said the National Corn Growers Association continues to encourage the EPA to work with growers on any final decisions to the proposed frameworks, processes, and projects related to the Endangered Species Act.
“It is important for the EPA to work with farmers to gain first-hand, real-world knowledge of how the intricate pieces of chemistry risk assessment, maps, geography, agricultural practices, and mitigation measures all fit together to best meet the objectives of the Endangered Species Act, while minimizing additional regulatory burdens on agriculture,” she said.
“Science-driven, yet feasible and practical mitigation measures, will be critical to on-farm adoption by growers,” she added. “Onerous and overly-burdensome mitigation measures will set neither growers, nor listed species up for success.”
Kunkler said, “These are incredibly complex and technical proposals. It’s hard to know where the problems are or how to fix them, not to mention understanding how it will impact your farm. Where does one even start?
“Thankfully, the American Soybean Association and many of our colleagues with other grower organizations are carefully monitoring and studying these proposals, raising concerns, and working to ensure anything that is finalized is reasonable and workable for agriculture,” he added.
He said under the EPA’s Vulnerable Species Pilot Project, the agency will identify certain vulnerable listed species, identify mitigations to protect them from pesticide exposure, and then implement these mitigations across different types of pesticides (i.e., herbicides, insecticides).
“The EPA has committed itself in federal court to implement a suite of the Endangered Species Act pilots and strategies,” he said. “The Vulnerable Species Pilot Project was just the first. “The agency has also committed to addressing herbicides as a class, insecticides, fungicides, and rodenticides.
“The EPA has already published proposals on some of these, where others they are committed to addressing in the months to come,” he said. “However, all aspects of crop protection stand to be impacted, and we expect this will be a recurring issue for years to come.”
Scott Gerlt, American Soybean Association chief economist, in a recent analysis, said, “Perhaps most concerning is that the EPA intends to expand the program beyond the 27 initial species labeled as having ‘small ranges.’
“Fortunately, the (EPA’s) Vulnerable Species Pilot Project has not been finalized,” he said. “(According to) the terms of a recently-announced court settlement, the EPA has until Dec. 30 to determine if modifications should be made to the Vulnerable Species Pilot Project, and until Sept. 30, 2024, to determine if the proposal should be expanded.”
He said the USDA has suggested many measures that can be taken to protect the endangered species, while increasing the ability of farmers to comply.
“These include tailoring the restrictions to the risks of individual pesticides, providing for offsets to allow agricultural production where it is most valuable, and better understanding species’ ranges,” he added. “The EPA’s subsequent revisions will have a large impact on the viability of many acres.”