Energy & Environment

Special report: The war on weeds

Eric Clifford of the Clifford Farm in Starksboro poured a mix of vitamins over grass and corn used to feed his cows. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Eric Clifford of the Clifford Farm in Starksboro pours a mix of vitamins over grass and corn used to feed his cows. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

On a busy street corner outside the Rutland farmers’ market, where local vendors sell cheeses, meats and spring vegetables, about a dozen residents recently raised signs to protest the use of weed-killing herbicides across the United States, especially Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup.

 Lisa Sheridan, 52, of West Rutland, dressed in a pesticide applicator suit protesting the use of Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds and the herbicide Roundup outside the farmer's market in Rutland. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Lisa Sheridan, 52, of West Rutland, dressed in a pesticide applicator suit protesting the use of Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds and the herbicide Roundup outside the farmers’ market in Rutland. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

“They are poisoning the earth. We are poisoning the water,” said Lisa Sheridan, 52, of West Rutland, who was dressed in a pesticide applicator suit holding a spray bottle and an ear of corn. She considers herself poor and receives disability benefits, but she said she eats only organic foods due to a fear of pesticide contamination.

“Everybody is eating it. Our food supply is in peril. Our soil is in peril. Our water is in peril,” she said.

Most conventional Vermont dairy farmers this spring sprayed their fields with glyphosate, a weed killer that is gaining popularity among dairy farmers who grow corn to feed their cows. On fields where weeds and grass are brown, many farmers have already sprayed the herbicide this year and will likely spray again.

According to state data, nearly all of the corn grown in Vermont is genetically engineered to survive the application of pesticides. Over the past decade, farmers who plant “Roundup Ready” corn have increasingly turning to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, to kill a variety of weeds that take nutrients, water and sunlight away from corn, which can affect yields.

In 2013, Vermont farmers and chemical applicators purchased five times more glyphosate than they did a decade ago, according to new data requested from the Agency of Agriculture.

Glyphosate is preferred among farmers who say it’s among the least toxic on the market, but strong enough to stunt weed growth. State regulators considered the chemical safe enough for farmers to spray without a license. (Applicators of all other herbicides need a license.)

But glyphosate is now being criticized for its potential impact on the environment and human health. This year, an agency of the World Health Organization found that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. The chemical can cause kidney damage and reproductive issues, according to federal regulators. Other research indicates glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor.

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Monsanto officials say regulatory agencies and experts across the world maintain the chemical, when used according to the label instructions, is not carcinogenic. The Environmental Protection Agency agrees, but is reviewing the chemical’s toxicity. Toxicologists have concluded that the original Roundup brand herbicide does not cause adverse effects on development, reproduction or endocrine systems in humans and other mammals.

Vermont was the first state in the nation to require foods with genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled.

But lawmakers did not ban the use of GMO corn. Industry proponents have maintained that genetically engineered corn would mitigate the need for more pesticides. Instead, the opposite has proved true. Farmers are using six times more glyphosate now than they did in 1999.

With the proliferation of glyphosate, some residents fear the chemical could contaminate water supplies. The state is not required to monitor drinking water for glyphosate due to a federal waiver.

Safer solution

Many agronomists and farmers, however, say the herbicide, which was first introduced commercially by Monsanto in 1974, is replacing more toxic chemicals that are likely to flow off of fields or leach through the soil into groundwater, such as atrazine, which the EPA says can cause cancer with long-term exposure. They say Roundup Ready corn also reduces insecticide use because the corn is engineered to kill pests when eaten — although most seeds are coated with insecticides as well.

“We may have increased the use of glyphosate but it’s a safer product,” said Jeff Carter, a University of Vermont Extension assistant professor in Middlebury. “I personally do think it’s the lesser of two evils if it’s used correctly.”

According to the EPA, long-term exposure to atrazine can cause cancer, cardiovascular damage, muscle degeneration and weight loss. The EPA maximum concentration limit for atrazine in drinking water is 3 parts per billion.

Since 2002, there have been more than two dozen cases in which atrazine has been detected in Vermont drinking water supplies serving thousands of people at levels as high as 0.44 parts per billion, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation. Locations include Alburgh, Londonderry, Manchester, Middlebury, South Hero and Swanton.

The EPA says glyphosate does not cause cancer, but can cause kidney damage. The state does not test drinking water for glyphosate, but samples taken for non-regulatory reasons indicate concentration levels are below what lab equipment used by the state can detect, a state official said.

Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Chuck Ross, secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets, said there is no formal policy initiative underway to reduce pesticide use in Vermont. But he said it is something the agency is interested in.

He said there will be a debate in the scientific community about the health impacts of glyphosate, and that debate needs to “settle out” before policy actions are taken. But he said glyphosate is generally viewed as superior to the chemicals used in the past.

“Is it risk free? [There are] all kinds of things that you can use that are risky. Too much lime and that’s a problem,” he said.

He is not concerned that nearly all corn growing in Vermont is genetically engineered.

Pesticide Use

Chart shows overall use of pesticide in Vermont.

Chart shows overall use of pesticide in Vermont.

 

Genetically engineered corn seed use

The percentage of genetically engineered corn seed used in Vermont.

The percentage of genetically engineered corn seed used in Vermont.

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Active ingredients in pesticides

Chart shows the amount of each active ingredient in pesticide used in Vermont.

Chart shows the amount of each active ingredient in pesticide used in Vermont.

Pesticides in Vermont’s modern dairy system

Eric Clifford of the Clifford Farm in Starksboro milks 200 cows. He grows grass and corn silage on his 500-acre farm to feed his cows. On a gray morning in May, he was rushing to plant corn before rain arrived. Carrying a 12-ounce container of chocolate milk, he watched his cows eat a mix of feed about 75 percent corn silage and 25 percent alfalfa.

“Every day that truck leaves there’s milk we’re producing that’s feeding people,” Clifford said. “You’re feeding people and taking care of the environment.”

The farm has been experimenting with cover cropping, a technique where farmers plant a winter crop to hold down soil and prevent soil runoff into the water, he said. This year, one section of his field was brown where he had planted winter rye before spraying it with a quart of glyphosate. He already planted corn while the winter rye was still decaying.

“Ultimately with cover cropping you can, under the right scenario, get by with less,” Clifford said. But, he added, “We use Roundup to kill cover crops and we are nearing the time period where we would use, perhaps, other herbicides.”

Some agronomists, however, say cover cropping is among the reasons why farmers are using more glyphosate. It can be applied to kill the cover crop, and corn can be planted within days after the application. Because of that and other reasons, such as price, glyphosate has been on the rise in Vermont.

In 2013, farmers purchased 17,730 pounds of glyphosate, up six times from 1999 levels when farmers purchased 2,851 pounds, according to the most recent data available, provided by the Agency of Agriculture upon request. The data published on the agency’s website has been inaccurate for years, state officials say. A full dataset is still unavailable.

Farmers use herbicides to kill common weeds including quackgrass, witchgrass, pigweed, and pests that include armyworms, click beetle and the black cutworm. Many farmers use a variety of pesticides to control weeds. Year after year planting of corn monocultures requires pesticides, agronomists say.

Eros Franquiz, a 3-year-old, and his mother Nahomi Franquiz, 23, of Massachusetts, protested the use of Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds and herbicide Roundup, outside the farmers market in Rutland. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Eros Franquiz, a 3-year-old, and his mother Nahomi Franquiz, 23, of Massachusetts, protested the use of Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds and herbicide Roundup, outside the farmers market in Rutland. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

“It’s a tool that nobody wants to use, but it makes agriculture viable in this state,” said state Agrichemical Management Chief Cary Giguere.

Clifford and others use more than just glyphosate to kill weeds. Some agronomists say farmers should rotate pesticides in order to avoid creating herbicide-resistant weeds, which exist but are not causing an increase in pesticide use in Vermont, agronomists say. Redroot pigweed and common lambsquarters are found in Vermont and are resistant to atrazine.

“It’s pretty easy to see that resistance,” said Daniel Hudson, a University of Vermont Extension assistant professor who works in the Northeast Kingdom and Connecticut River watershed as an agronomist and nutrient management specialist. “If people know that they have resistance to a particular herbicide, they are going to try to find a product that will cover as many weeds as they can.”

But some farmers say the state should be phasing out pesticides, not changing the type that is used.

“These are toxic chemicals,” said Will Allen, of the Cedar Circle Farm, an organic vegetable and fruit farm in East Thetford. “That’s what most of our cows are eating in Vermont.”

Asked whether glyphosate is better than atrazine, the second most widely used herbicide in Vermont, Allen said the industry has for years said new chemicals are replacing worse chemicals.

“Atrazine is already banned in the EU. Probably within a year glyphosate will be banned,” he said.

One of Allen’s top concerns is that the herbicide is entering Vermont’s waterways.

The Agency of Agriculture, which regulates pesticides and monitors for surface and groundwater contamination, does not have electronic records for the last five years due to a delayed computer system overhaul that began about five years ago. All handwritten data is kept on paper postcards in a metal box inside the Agency of Agriculture office in Montpelier.

But agronomists say glyphosate, unlike atrazine, binds to soil and plants. It also becomes nontoxic in days. Atrazine can enter groundwater and drinking water, and can take months to more than a year to become nontoxic, especially in cool water. But research indicates that glyphosate can leave the field as well.

“It moves around more than they thought it would,” said William Battaglin, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Battaglin was one of the authors of a 2014 study that found frequent traces of glyphosate in streams, rivers, wastewater treatment plant outflows and ditches sampled across 38 states. The study did not include Vermont. He said glyphosate does bind strongly to soil particles, but it can still make its way into the water when it washes off of fields. He said 90 percent of the glyphosate stays on the field and eventually degrades on the soil or plant.

Mike Eastman of the 40-cow dairy farm in Addison looks out over a former manure lagoon toward the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Mike Eastman, who owns a 40-cow dairy farm in Addison, looks out over a former manure lagoon toward the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Alternatives to pesticides

Heather Darby, a University of Vermont Extension associate professor based in St. Albans, said pesticides were intended to be applied when there is a problem. Now, she said, with insecticides applied to seed, they are used even when they are not needed.

“Often people feel like this is what’s available and they are not given as much choice as there should be,” Darby said. “Is all of that necessary? And do we always need it?”

Most corn seeds are treated with a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids, which are used to harm or kill insects, and some scientists blame the toxins for declines in bee populations. Federal regulations exempt reporting of the chemical when used to treat seeds.

Agronomists say the modern corn industry requires the use of pesticides. Without them, farmers would have to till their land and rotate crops, which creates other concerns about soil runoff.

But some farmers grow grass rather than corn and do not use pesticides.

Mike Eastman owns a 40-cow, 312-acre farm in Addison, where he grows grass to feed his dairy cows without using pesticides. In late April, he sat in a lawn chair looking through a row of willow trees at a plume of dust caused by the tilling of a farm just beyond his young sod pasture still too low for grazing cows.

 Mike Eastman of the 40-cow dairy farm in Addison pets his cows as the feed on grass just weeks before moving outside to graze. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Mike Eastman of the 40-cow dairy farm in Addison pets his cows as they feed on grass just weeks before moving outside to graze. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

“I’ve always just liked seeing cows out grazing in a field. I think it’s pretty. I think it’s peaceful.” Eastman said. “When I’m done milking on a summer night and you just sit here with a beer and watch your cows out grazing, you’re kind of letting the cow do what comes natural to the cow.”

He feeds his cows dry grass in the winter and lets them graze in the summer. He said his cows produce less milk than conventional dairy farms, but he receives a premium for grass-fed organic. His farm is his only source of income, he said. Eastman said conventional dairy farmers cannot change overnight to eliminate pesticide use. He said the industry has been evolving for 50 to 60 years to feed cows grain, which means more pesticides.

“So if you wanted to change it, you would have to give another 50 to 60 years to have it go the other way,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. It would be an evolution back in the other direction that you have been evolving away from.”

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John Herrick

About John

John Herrick joined VTDigger in June 2013 as an intern working on the searchable campaign finance database and is now VTDigger's energy and environment reporter. He graduated from the University of Vermont with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a minor in Spanish. He wrote for the Vermont Cynic, university’s student newspaper, before interning and later freelancing for the Burlington Free Press.

Email: [email protected]

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