Herbicide use and exposures are on the rise in the Midwest, driven by changes in farming systems and technology that have markedly heightened reliance on herbicides. The commercial introduction in 1996 of genetically engineered, herbicide resistant (-HR) corn, soybeans, and cotton revolutionized weed management systems in these major commodity crops.
GE-HR technology markedly simplified weed management, an annual necessity on every farm that had become complex, costly, and often only partially successful.
The rapid embrace by farmers of GE-HR technology, and its initial, high level of efficacy, reduced interest in, and adoption of non-chemical weed management alternatives. Both private sector and university research moved away from multi-tactic, prevention-based systems.
Given how rapidly herbicide use patterns are changing, both federal and state regulatory agencies will struggle to stay abreast of changes in exposures and risk, both to humans and across a diversity of non-target organisms including pollinators, butterflies, birds, and fish.
Likewise, the public health and medical communities face a long list of emerging and/or deepening health threats, in addition to herbicide-based risks, and there is no realistic prospect that public health or research funding will increase proportional to emerging challenges. In fact, federal budget cuts are likely to be significant, although not nearly as deep as proposed in the initial Trump administration budget outline (e.g., 31% decrease infunding, substantial cuts in and funding).
It is unlikely that the U.S. EPA will take meaningful action to reduce herbicide use, exposures, and risk, even in areas where all three are headed sharply upward. Still, there is much the agency can do to place a cap on increases in herbicide use and risks over the next five years, if they believe doing so is warranted and worth the political risks.
Farmers and their commodity organizations, and the broader weed management community, can and indeed must play a constructive role by promoting the shift back toward multi-tactic weed management systems. That shift is the only viable way to turn the tide on the glyphosate resistant weed-driven herbicide treadmill, and steadily rising weed management system costs.
The public health and scientific community has a vital role to play in tracking the frequency and severity of herbicide-induced, adverse health outcomes. Our hope is that new data and sharper science will help target efforts, so that significant risk reduction can be achieved much earlier than otherwise likely, and at lower cost to farmers and society as a whole. The rest of this section outlines pragmatic steps that will help in achieving such a win-win outcome.