Tim Pastoor, a scientist with Swiss ag giant Syngenta AG, calls atrazine "easily one of the most studied molecules on the planet." More than 600 studies have been done on the weed-killing herbicide over the years, he said. The secret of atrazine's success - and staying power - has been the yield benefit offered corn farms, controlling tough weeds that, if left untended, would crowd corn plants.
Tim Pastoor, a scientist with Swiss ag giant Syngenta AG, calls atrazine "easily one of the most studied molecules on the planet." More than 600 studies have been done on the weed-killing herbicide over the years, he said.
Registered by CIBA-GEIGY about 50 years ago, atrazine has been around far longer than most farm chemicals. Syngenta is now the primary producer of atrazine and stands by the product. On the Web site, atrazine.com, the company declares, "Syngenta believes in atrazine, its effectiveness, its safety, its importance to agriculture - in the U.S. and worldwide."
The secret of atrazine's success - and staying power - has been the yield benefit offered corn farms, controlling tough weeds that, if left untended, would crowd corn plants.
Lori Laughlin, a spokeswoman for Bloomington-based Illinois Farm Bureau, noted that "Atrazine is one tool among many available to farmers. The product provides a lot of economic benefits to producers; it helps to improve the efficacy of other products and is important for conservation tillage."
"Atrazine has been researched and studied rigorously. The application rate has decreased in recent years," she added.
What has not decreased in recent years is controversy over the herbicide. Concerns over atrazine being a carcinogen were first raised in the 1980s. In 1991, detection of atrazine in drinking water brought regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture conceded in a 1994 study that "restricting atrazine use would protect public water supplies (but) restrictions would impose costs on farmers and consumers."
"Farmers would use alternative herbicides to control weeds. Other herbicides are not as effective as atrazine and heavier applications (of other herbicides) would be required to achieve the same level of control. As a result, costs of production and food prices could rise and some of the environmental gains made by reducing atrazine could be offset by increased discharges of other chemicals," said the USDA.
While efforts to restrict atrazine have not proved successful in the United States, the herbicide was banned by several European countries in the 1990s and by the European Union in 2005.
Despite the ban, EU countries use terbuthylazine, a herbicide similar to atrazine, said Syngenta's Pastoor. "The European Union's decision not to use atrazine was not science based but directed by a groundwater limit for all pesticides of .01 part per billion, regardless of toxicity," he said.
Bureau County farmer Keith Bolin said he's used atrazine since he started farming in 1978. His family uses well water, but he has never had the water tested for atrazine contamination. Bolin believes there is less risk with atrazine than with biotech corn.
Bolin farms 600 acres with 40 acres in organic production. He plans to slowly expand organic production, gradually phasing out the use of atrazine and other chemicals. "The organic corn (sells for) $7 a bushel. The conventional corn (sells for) $3 a bushel and the organic corn takes $300 an acre less than the conventional, but organic is a lot more labor," he said.
Saving labor is something else that can be attributed to atrazine, said Chuck Foresman, Syngenta's senior technical brand manager, who recalled that atrazine changed the way he spent his summers as a boy.
"I grew up on a farm in Hancock County. Until my father started using atrazine, we would spend eight- to 10-hour days clearing weeds all summer long. It was the most dreary job on the farm," he said.
Atrazine's chief benefit is that it helps produce more corn per acre. Illinois corn treated with atrazine yielded between eight and 10 bushels more per month compared to corn grown without it, said Richard Fawcett of an Iowa-based agricultural consulting service.
"As glyphosate and glysophate-resistant weeds increase in the future (as many weed scientists predict), atrazine will become more important," noted Fawcett in a 2007 study.
Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association, called atrazine "like salt in a recipe," referring to the fact the herbicide's effectiveness increases when mixed with other chemicals. "It makes everything else work better," she said.
A recurring theme in several studies is that restricting the use of atrazine would hurt U.S. farmers. In one performed by University of Illinois researchers, weed scientist David Pike set the cost to farmers of replacing atrazine at $15 per acre. "This cost does not include the cost of additional soil erosion where tillage will be used to replace atrazine use," he said.
In a separate 2007 study, atrazine was viewed as critical to Illinois farmers. Illinois corn farmers and the state's economy could suffer annual losses in excess of $500 million without atrazine, according to the study released by the Illinois Farm Bureau.
"In nearly 50 years of use, atrazine has proven (to be) cost effective, reliable, flexible and safe when used in accordance with federal label instructions," said University of Chicago economist Don Coursey, who performed the study.
But that work was questioned by Frank Ackerman, director of research for the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. "In 2007, Don Coursey completed a study of the value of atrazine to the Illinois economy, performed for Syngenta, the principal producer of atrazine," noted Ackerman in a 2007 article in the International Journal of Occupational Environmental Health.
"It is often claimed that atrazine is of great economic benefit to corn growers but support for this claim is limited," wrote Ackerman, adding that, after both Italy and Germany banned atrazine in 1991, neither country saw a decrease in corn yields.
Steve Tarter can be reached at (309) 686-3260 or firstname.lastname@example.org.