Syngenta Makes a Killing on Pesticides While Feds Snooze

| Wed Jul. 27, 2011 6:06 AM EDT

The pesticide atrazine is vile stuff. A "potent endocrine disruptor," it causes a range of reproductive problems at extremely low doses; and it commonly leaches out of farm fields and into people's drinking water. Unfortunately, it's quite popular with industrial-scale corn growers, who apply about 70 million pounds of it per year to kill weeds.

Just this month, USDA researchers released a study finding that atrazine is even more volatile than they previously expected: It's highly prone to evaporate after it's applied, entering the air and eventually groundwater. That might explain why in towns throughout the Corn Belt, atrazine levels in drinking water tend to "spike" during the spring application season, as a 2009 New York Times investigation found.

A wise society might be expected to ban it. Citing its tendency to taint water, the European Union did just that in 2003. But that same year, atrazine's maker, the Swiss chemical giant Syngenta, convinced our own EPA to maintain approval for it. To make its case, the company presented a bunch of studies it had funded that that have since been discredited. The EPA changed course in 2009, announcing it formally would review its decision to green light the toxic chemical. The review was initially slated to take a year; so far, nothing has come of it. An EPA press officer told me via email that the agency's scientific-advisory panel charged with scrutinizing atrazine will meet this week. But it will be "upwards of 90 days" before any report is issued.

While the EPA undertakes its leisurely reconsideration, atrazine use is booming. It remains "one of the most widely used agricultural pesticides in the US" by the EPA's own reckoning. And Syngenta recently reported a 14 percent jump in profits for the first half of 2011, based in part on "strong sales of atrazine" in North America.

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The company attributed atrazine's robust sales performance to "increased corn acreage" in the US Midwest—an example of how our government's ethanol boosterism helps sell agrichemicals and degrades the environment. But there's likely another factor at work here, too: the accelerating problem of "superweeds" resistant to the Roundup herbicide peddled by Syngenta's rival, Monsanto, which I wrote about last week. Syngenta is explicitly marketing atrazine as a remedy for Roundup-resistant weeds. Funnily enough, Monsanto, too, is reporting robust sales of Roundup as farmers ramp up doses to try to fight back resistant weeds. By ushering farmers on to such pesticide treadmills, the the agrichemical industry turns failure into market opportunity.

Which leads us back to the question of whether the EPA, when its review is finally completed, will allow Syngenta to maintain its lucrative but hazardous herbicide on the market. As a jaded observer of the US regulatory system's oversight of the agrichemical industry, I fear that it probably will.

Consider other recent decisions. The USDA explicitly acknowledges the superweed problem, but has in effect given up regulating Roundup Ready products altogether. And the EPA—as I reported earlier this year—has ignored the concerns of government scientists and continued to allow another European agribiz player, Bayer, to keep marketing another dodgy pesticide. This one, clothianidin, also widely used on our vast corn crop from pests, appears to seriously harm honeybee populations.

In short, our regulatory agencies seem incapable of placing the public interest over the prerogatives of agribusiness.

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