Herbicide Use in “Regenerative” No-Till Contaminates Waterbodies – Beyond Pesticides

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(Beyond Pesticides, February 19, 2021) Governments and policy makers are feeling a lot of pressure to mount effective responses to the climate crisis and to extraordinary levels of pollution in our environment. Tackling any one problem without precautionary attention to potential consequences of a solution — before it is enacted — is the opposite of the holistic understandings and strategies needed to solve environmental crises. Piecemeal approaches often generate unintended consequences. To wit: Vermont Public Radio (VPR) reports on revelations from a retired state scientist, Nat Shambaugh, who finds that farmers’ efforts to reduce agricultural runoff from fields into waterbodies, by planting cover crops, has resulted in significant increases in the use of herbicides to kill off those crops. So as one kind of pollution is reduced, another has become intensified.
In Vermont and elsewhere, there has been much attention paid to nutrient pollution of waterbodies and waterways from agricultural runoff, largely because phosphorous and nitrates from fertilizers lead to contaminated drinking water, as well as to blooms of algae (some of which have their own toxic byproducts) and hypoxic dead zones in water bodies. The most notorious of these dead zones in North America are at the mouth of the Mississippi River as it empties into the Gulf of Mexico, and in Lake Okeechobee in Florida.
Beyond Pesticides has written extensively about water quality issues as they relate to pesticides, agriculture, and other land management. But less attention has been given generally to the problem of pesticide residues and metabolites in agricultural runoff, which also threaten drinking water sources, ecosystem health, and biodiversity. The report from VPR indicates that the increases in herbicide use may well be contaminating the state’s watery gem, Lake Champlain, and questions whether the state’s Agency of Agriculture is acting sufficiently on its policy to reduce pesticide use.
The Vermont official in charge of pesticide regulation has explained the idea behind this shift to chemical “no till” (cover cropping plus herbicide kill-off of that crop). As dairy farmers instituted cover cropping to reduce nutrient runoff from their silage corn fields, they would adopt genetically engineered (GE) corn seed plus the herbicide Roundup, with which the GE seed must be paired, as a “trade” of one kind of nasty chemical (atrazine) for another (glyphosate/Roundup). (Cover crops create a “canopy” of foliage that reduces the impact of rain on the surface of soil, reducing erosion and runoff, and assisting with rain’s infiltration into the soil.)
So Vermont farmers have upped their use of toxic herbicides, particularly the glyphosate-based Roundup, which has been promoted as relatively “benign” compared with the previous favorite, atrazine (a recognized carcinogen). Glyphosate is applied to the corn crop as it grows, adding the compound not only to the soil (from where it can migrate to ground or surface waters), but also, because glyphosate is a systemic herbicide, to the whole of the plant that livestock will ultimately eat. Then, farmers are using the herbicide on the same fields again to kill off cover crops once those have grown and served their purposes.
Thus, the “solutions” for reducing runoff have resulted in heightened threats to waterways and ecosystems. Glyphosate use rose from roughly 13,000 pounds annually in 2009 to nearly 30,000 in 2016; and atrazine use increased from 50,000 pounds in 2007 to nearly 80,000 in 2018. In addition, despite industry claims, glyphosate is hardly benign, and data show that atrazine is still being used widely in the state, according to data collected between 2007 and 2018.
Mr. Shambaugh used to work on water monitoring and pesticide regulation for the state Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets. He thinks that the inattention to pesticide runoff is problematic both for Vermont’s waterways and for how the state deals with pesticide use. He maintains that the state needs a monitoring system to track herbicide use, and believes the state has failed to follow its own policy of limiting overall pesticide use, pointing to the increases his report reveals. Mr. Shambaugh also cites as problematic the state agency’s permitting of corn seed coated with neonicotinoid pesticides, which are notorious for their harmful and indisriminate impacts on pollinators and other insects.
Director of the Lake Champlain Citizens Advisory Committee, Lori Fisher, said Mr. Shambaugh’s report showing increased pesticide use raises serious concerns for Lake Champlain. “Certainly those [herbicide metrics] were shocking numbers. And it was really disconcerting to see that we’re seeing an increase in pesticide [and] herbicide use.” Mr. Shambaugh points to one study of a stream in Franklin Count that drains corn fields and flows into Lake Champlain. The research showed atrazine and other pesticides — including neonicotinoids — at concentrations high enough to kill insects and plant life. “So if we’re having a potential effect on the bottom of the food chain, the insects and the plants in the water,” he said, “who knows what it’s doing to everything else?”
The Vermont farmers, wittingly or otherwise, were adopting two of the tenets of regenerative approaches to agriculture — use of cover crops, and low or no tillage. The goals of regenerative agriculture — as opposed to conventional, chemical-intensive farming, which is called “degenerative” by regenerative advocates — are to restore and enrich soils, increase biodiversity, and enhance ecosystem health. Out of those goals have arisen strategies commonly understood to be hallmarks of regenerative farming: minimal soil disturbance, use of cover crops (to avoid bare soils), crop rotation, silvopasture (integration of livestock and trees into the farmscape), use of compost and compost tea, perennial crops, and a halt to application of chemical inputs (pesticides and synthetic fertilizers). “Real” regenerative practices would not involve toxic chemicals as a means of felling cover crops, for example.
The nonprofit organization Kiss the Ground offers this primer on the basis of the regenerative approach: “The system that makes nature regenerative on land is the symbiotic relationship between photosynthesizing plants and soil microorganisms. Together they create soil and biomass. This ‘technology’ is the reason why life on Earth can restore itself when harmed or why ecosystems can regenerate. It is this process that pulls carbon from the CO2 in the atmosphere and converts it into the building blocks of everything alive, making life, as we know it, possible.”
The concept of “regenerative agriculture” is increasingly being pointed to, among policy makers, as an important widget in the climate toolkit, which it certainly can be. But effective responses to the climate crisis will wind down, and ultimately eliminate, use of fossil fuels, either as fuels or as components of toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. As Beyond Pesticides recently wrote, “Proposals now in Congress and the administration require close attention and scrutiny” to ensure that progress on climate does not come at the cost of other fossil fuel pollution. Recent proposed policy fixes — including the Growing Climate Solutions Act in Congress, and President Biden’s Climate 21 Project — talk about the capacity of soils to sequester carbon and a variety of strategies to encourage increased carbon storage in agriculture.
But, according to the Beyond Pesticides Daily News Blog of February 16, neither initiative “adequately and comprehensively responds to the current and looming interconnected threats to public health and the environment. The focus on carbon to the exclusion of a holistic approach that addresses complex, life-supporting, biological communities allows the continuation of disproportionate hazards to people of color and communities living adjacent to toxic sites. The mechanisms of carbon trading or the purchasing of carbon offsets under consideration do not establish an end date for admittedly unacceptable materials and practices, nor do they ensure a transition to life-sustaining practices.”
Such proposals fail, to date, to employ an integrated, holistic, and precautionary framework for addressing the climate crisis. They do not contend with the soil health and ecosystem impacts of synthetic, high-nitrogen fertilizers (which exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions); the damage to ecosystem and soil health caused by pesticides; the toxic harms of chemical no-till practices (which rely on Roundup and other herbicides); and the fact that pesticides and fertilizers use petrochemicals that come from fossil fuels.
Absent such a framework, the rush to climate solutions that include soil as a carbon sink may well encourage chemical-intensive, no-till agriculture that uses genetically engineered crops and huge amounts of herbicides, such as glyphosate, dicamba, and 2,4-D. This could happen despite the availability of organic farming and land management practices that eliminate these toxic compounds and exposures, and are a viable, profitable, and protective approach to food production and healthy landscapes.
Beyond Pesticides Executive Director Jay Feldman has said, “Strategies that allow continued use of toxic substances undermine the soil biology and biodiversity that [are] critical to healthy plants. It’s past time to talk elimination of toxic pesticides and nothing short of that.” The Rodale Institute’s chief executive officer, Jeff Moyer, addresses the “regenerative without organic” issue pithily: “We believe that in order to be regenerative, you have to start by being organic. It’s a little disingenuous to say you can regenerate soil health and sequester carbon and still use nitrogen fertilizers and synthetic pesticides. What you’re really saying is equivalent to saying, ‘I want to be healthy as a person, but I still want to smoke cigarettes.’”
Organic, regenerative agriculture can be a powerful, healthful, and profitable climate solution. But without adequate definition of “regenerative agriculture” — which would include proscription against chemical inputs — a level of “greenwashing” may be afoot as decision makers scramble to add soil’s (and crops’) carbon-holding capacity to climate mitigation approaches. Adoption of some regenerative practices, without the features of organic agriculture that are so critical to genuine soil and ecosystem health, leaves the door wide open for the kind of herbicide intensification Vermont is now experiencing. Organic agricultural practices must be part and parcel of the implementation of any regenerative approaches to farming that aim to mitigate the climate crisis.
Source: https://www.vpr.org/post/farmers-plant-cover-crops-reduce-runoff-report-says-they-also-use-more-herbicides#stream/0
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

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