Agricultural Scientist Responds To Oregon County’s Mandate To Apply Herbicides To Organic Farm

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

Yesterday I fielded an article concerning a rather distressing mandate by an Oregon county weed control agency seeking to force the application of hazardous herbicides onto a 2,000 acre organic farm owned by Azure Farms. Sherman County Oregon maintains this scorched earth policy is necessary to abate, or more specifically “eradicate”, weeds listed by state statute as noxious.

Now, the scientific community is responding to this overreaching government action by acting in the interests of health and responsible environmental stewardship through advocacy in the hopes that officials in Sherman County will reconsider their mandate.

Dr. Charles Benbrook is a highly credentialed research professor and expert serving on several boards of directors for agribusiness and natural resources organizations. Having read news of Sherman County’s actions, he penned an authoritative response I believe will make informative reading for those concerned by present and future implications in the forced use of herbicides under the rubric of noxious weed eradication, and the damage to organic farming generally arising from such mandates.

Dr. Charles Benbrook

Charles Benbrook has a PhD in agricultural economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an undergraduate degree from Harvard University. He currently is a Visiting Professor at Newcastle University in the UK. See his CV here.

He was a Research Professor at Washington State University from 2012-2015, and served as the Chief Scientist of The Organic Center from 2006-2012. He was the Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture in the National Academy of Sciences from 1984-1990. He was the staff director of the Subcommittee on Department [USDA] Operations, Research, and Foreign Agriculture of the House Committee on Agriculture (1981-1983). He worked as an agricultural and natural resources policy expert in the Council for Environmental Quality in the last 1.5 years of the Carter Administration. He began Benbrook Consulting Services (BCS) in 1990, and continues to carry out projects with a wide range of clients via BCS

He coauthors an informative website Hygeia-Analytics.com.

I reached out to Dr. Benbrook and received permission to reprint his letter in the hope that with more attention, including that from the scientific community, we can arrive at a reasonable solution to the county’s concerns. Here is Dr. Benbrook’s letter: Original webpage may be read HERE.

Tom McCoy
Joe Dabulskis

Sherman County Commissioners

Lauren Hernandez
Administrative Assistant
Sherman County, Oregon

Rod Asher
Sherman Country Weed District Supervisor
Moro, Oregon

Alexis Taylor
Director
Oregon Department of Agriculture

Dear Ms. Hernandez el al:

I live in Wallowa County. I learned today of the recent, dramatic change in the Sherman County noxious weed control program and the plan to forcibly spray a 2,000-acre organic farm in the county.

Over a long career, I have studied herbicide use and efficacy, public and private weed control efforts, the linkages between herbicide use and the emergence and spread of resistant weeds, and the public health and environmental impacts of herbicide use and other weed management strategies.

I served for six years, along with fellow Oregonian Barry Bushue, past-president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, on the USDA’s AC 21 Agricultural Biotechnology Advisory Committee. Issues arising from herbicide use were a frequent topic of discussion during our Committee’s deliberations.

I have published multiple scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals on glyphosate, its human health risks, and the impact of genetically engineered crops on overall herbicide use and the spread of resistant weeds. In a separate email, I will forward you copies of my published research relevant to the use of herbicides, and glyphosate in particular.

The notion that Sherman County can eradicate noxious weeds by blanket herbicide spraying is deeply misguided. I cannot imagine a single, reputable university weed scientist in the State supporting the idea that an herbicide-based noxious weed eradication program would work (i.e., eradicate the target weeds) in Oregon, or any other state. To hear another opinion from one of the State’s most widely known and respected weed scientists, I urge the County to consult with Dr. Carol Mallory-Smith, Oregon State University.

I also doubt any corporate official working for Monsanto, the manufacturer of glyphosate (Roundup), would agree or endorse the notion that any long-established weed in Sherman County, noxious or otherwise, could be eradicated via blanket spraying with Roundup, or for that matter any combination of herbicides.

Before proceeding with any county-mandated herbicide use justified by the goal of eradication, I urge the County to seek concurrence from the herbicide manufacturer that they believe use of their product will likely eradicate your named, target, noxious weeds.

Given that almost no one with experience in weed management believes that any long-established weed, noxious or otherwise, can be eradicated with herbicides, one wonders why the County has adopted such a draconian change in its noxious weed control program. I can think of two plausible motivations – a desire by companies and individuals involved in noxious weed control activities, via selling or applying herbicides, to increase business volume and profits; or, an effort to reduce or eliminate acreage in the Country that is certified organic.

Weeds are classified as noxious when they prone to spread, are difficult to control, and pose a public health or economic threat to citizens, public lands, and/or farming and ranching operations. Ironically, by far the fastest growing and mostly economically damaging noxious weeds in the U.S. are both noxious and spreading because they have developed resistance to commonly applied herbicides, and especially glyphosate.

There is near-universal agreement in the weed science community nationwide, and surely as well in the PNW, that over-reliance on glyphosate (Roundup) over the last two decades has created multiple, new noxious weeds posing serious economic, environmental, and public health threats.

In fact, over 120 million acres of cultivated cropland in the U.S. is now infested with one or more glyphosate-resistant weed (for details, see http://cehn-healthykids.org/herbicide-use/resistant-weeds/.

The majority of glyphosate-resistant weeds are in the Southeast and Midwest, where routine, year-after-year planting of Roundup Ready crops has led to heavy and continuous selection pressure on weed populations, pressure that over three-to-six years typically leads to the evolution of genetically resistant weed phenotypes, that can then take off, spreading across tens of millions of acres in just a few years.

Ask any farmer in Georgia, or Iowa, or Arkansas whether they would call “noxious” the glyphosate-resistant kochia, Palmer amaranth, Johnson grass, marestail, or any of a dozen other glyphosate-resistant weeds in their fields.

It is virtually certain that an herbicide-based attempt to eradicate noxious weeds in Sherman County would fail. It would also be extremely costly, and would pose hard-to-predict collateral damage on non-target plants from drift, and on human health and the environment. But even worse, it would also, almost certainly, accelerate the emergence and spread of a host of weeds resistant to the herbicides used in the program.

This would, in turn, leave the county, and the county’s farmers with not just their existing suite of noxious weeds to deal with, but a new generation of them resistant to glyphosate, or whatever other herbicides are widely used.

Sherman County’s proposal, while perhaps well meaning, will simply push the herbicide use-resistant weed treadmill into high gear. Just as farmers in other parts of the county have learned over the last 20 years, excessive reliance on glyphosate, or herbicides over-all, accomplishes only one thing reliably – it accelerates the emergence and spread of resistant weeds, requiring applications of more, and often more toxic herbicides, and so on before some one, or something breaks this vicious cycle.

I urge you to take into account two other consequences if the County pursues this deeply flawed strategy. Certified organic food products grown and processed in Oregon, and distributed by Oregon-based companies like Azure and the Organically Grown Company, are highly regarded throughout the U.S. for exceptional quality, consistency, and value.

Plus, export demand is growing rapidly across several Pacific Rim nations for high-value, certified organic foods and wine from Oregon. Triggering a high-profile fight over government-mandated herbicide spraying on certified organic fields in Sherman County will come as a shock to many people, who are under the impression that all Oregonians, farmers and consumers alike, are committed to a vibrant, growing, and profitable organic food industry.

Does Sherman County really want to erode this halo benefiting the marketing of not just organic products, but all food and beverages from Oregon?

Second, if Sherman County is serious about weed eradication, it will have to mandate widespread spraying countywide, and not just on organic farms, and not just for one year. The public reaction will be swift, strong, and build in ferocity. It will likely lead to civil actions of the sort that can trigger substantial, unforeseen costs and consequences. I am surely not the only citizen of the State that recalls the tragic events last year in Malheur County.

Plus, I guarantee you that the County, the herbicide applicators, and the manufacturers of the herbicides applied, under force of law on organic or other farms, will face a torrent of litigation seeking compensatory damages for loss of reputation, health risks, and the loss of premium markets and prices.

I have followed litigation of this sort for decades, and have served as an expert witness in several herbicide-related cases. While it is obviously premature to start contemplating the precise legal theories and statutes that will form the crux of future litigation, the County should develop a realistic estimate of the legal costs likely to arise in the wake of this strategy, if acted upon, so that the County Commissioners can alert the public upfront regarding how they will raise the funds needed to deal with the costs of near-inevitable litigation.

~+~

Many thanks to Professor Benbrook for his quick attention to this important matter. We owe him gratitude for his effort and I am thankful for his providing us with scientific and ethical evidence to support the prevention of over-reach by government officials that puts in jeopardy the health of individuals, the environment, and the liberty of farmers to grow healthy crops.

UPDATE: The Organic Farm and Sherman County have reached a tentative settlement.

By Darren Smith

Source: Charles Benbrook via Hygeia Analytics

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

74 thoughts on “Agricultural Scientist Responds To Oregon County’s Mandate To Apply Herbicides To Organic Farm

    • “Our results suggest that chronic exposure to a GBH in an established laboratory animal toxicity model system at an ultra-low, environmental dose can result in liver and kidney damage with potential significant health implications for animal and human populations.”
      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4549093/

      ” Significant (p<0.05) alterations in the level of all the reproductive hormones and oxidative stress markers assayed were observed in rats exposed to Roundup. Significant reductions (p<0.05) in sperm count, percentage motility and significant (p<0.05) increased in abnormal sperm cells were observed in the exposed rats. Histopathologically, severe degenerative testicular architectural lesions were seen in the Roundup exposed rats. Roundup may interfere with spermatogenesis and impair fertility in male gonad."
      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28473188

      " the adoption of herbicide-resistant crops impacts agronomy, agricultural practice, and weed management and contributes to biodiversity loss in several ways: (i) many studies show that glyphosate-based herbicides, which were commonly regarded as less harmful, are toxic to a range of aquatic organisms and adversely affect the soil and intestinal microflora and plant disease resistance…Continuous herbicide resistance cropping and the intensive use of glyphosate over the last 20 years have led to the appearance of at least 34 glyphosate-resistant weed species worldwide"

      Environ Sci Eur. 2017; 29(1): 5.
      Published online 2017 Jan 21. doi: 10.1186/s12302-016-0100-y
      PMCID: PMC5250645
      Herbicide resistance and biodiversity: agronomic and environmental aspects of genetically modified herbicide-resistant plants
      Gesine Schütte,1 Michael Eckerstorfer,2 Valentina Rastelli,3 Wolfram Reichenbecher,corresponding author4 Sara Restrepo-Vassalli,5 Marja Ruohonen-Lehto,6 Anne-Gabrielle Wuest Saucy,7 and Martha Mertens8

      There is plenty more.

  1. Please remember what started all of this – the need to control a noxious/invasive species. If you don’t like the option of spraying herbicide, please propose alternative approaches that achieve the same goal – preservation of our native ecosystems outside of the fence-lines.

    Remember we’re not dealing with a natural system when it comes to Organic or conventional agriculture – taking earth to bare dirt once a year is not a natural cycle. If we do nothing and let noxious/invasive species run rampant, they pose a threat to destroy our true natural lands – especially in the face of climate change. This is a problem that requires compromise and an evidence based approach.

    Lets focus on solutions.

    • That’s exactly what organic farming has done and why it must be stopped at all costs. It has found a model where weeds are naturally killed off or managed by the choice, location and timing of the crops grown.

      The issue you want to address is how can agri-business get rid of these pesky farms that, even in a small way, put their near monopoly on all exploitable land at risk.

  2. The culprit here is agribusiness. Always out to make a profit above all else. The result seems always to scorch the earth in the process. It works much like capitalism. Always more, more is critical – in this case more toxicity as weeds keep mutating and becoming resistant to the latest most toxic levels of poison..

    It will work until it stops working -globally- at the point there is no farm-able land left that will grow anything at all, or even allow humans without space suits, given the toxicity of the weed killers that will be in use at that time. The economy of scale will shift from how many billions of dollars can be extracted from the earth to how many billions of humans starve.

    That’s the point that it goes from being a good old fashioned common sense business approach, to being the fault of those crazy lib-I-rulls and their crazy nature meddling weed killing socialism.

  3. Spraying poison onto and near food. Doesn’t that answer it’s own question? Of course, there’s always rationalization away from common sense where “law” is involved.

    Why doesn’t the farm call for volunteers and set up some fun rewards for their work. The blue liberals in the Portland area would have a great time helping out the farmers in the county of red opinions.

  4. We are not being told all,of the facts, as usual.
    For Karen S about lead: all of the lead burned in gasoline all of those years is still in the soil next to the roads. Lead in the soil there is more of a problem than near an old house.

  5. I just returned tonight from the town hall meeting in Moro, Sherman County, Oregon held to discuss the row between Azure Farms, the county weed control board, and other interested parties.

    Both sides have expressed their surprise at having been overwhelmed by responses via telephone and email. Azure stated they received over 40,000 emails and constant phone calls. The county received over 57,000 and stopped answering the phone because they were so overwhelmed with calls over the past few days.

    I am working on an article for the weekend to describe the findings of the meeting and the course selected to move forward for both sides.

  6. Update:

    “The county commission has now agreed to work with us on a proper weed plan that does not include the use of toxic chemicals, and we would like to thank them for their level-headed approach to working together with Azure Farm.

    There are still a couple of meetings we will have with the county officials to work out the final implementation of this plan but we are now very optimistic that this will work out in a good way for all concerned.”

    See the change.org petition for an update

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s