Will Allen, writer and organic farmer, has issued a scathing report on Vermont farmers’ use of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. The report is based on official state data, which shows that between 2002 and 2012, herbicide use nearly doubled on Vermont farms.
Farmers used 1.54 pounds of herbicide per acre in 2002; that number increased to 3.01 pounds per acre in 2012.
That, in itself, is appalling — especially for a sector that wraps itself in the pure-Vermont blanket when it comes to political issues like, say, the pollution of Lake Champlain.
Allen’s report focuses mainly on herbicide and pesticide use, which spiked at the same time GMO corn* became nearly universal on Vermont farms. You know, the stuff that’s supposed to reduce the need for killer chemicals. (See note at end of this post.)
*A factoid for those impressed by our GMO labeling law: 96 percent of corn grown in Vermont is genetically modified. Ninety-six percent!
Gee, maybe Monsanto sold us a bill of goods?
But there’s another aspect that really struck me.
Allen found that dairy farmers were using 16.5 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizer on 92,000 acres of farmland as of 2012. A decade earlier, dairy businesses applied half as much, or about 8.9 million pounds of chemical nutrients on about the same amount of acreage, according to data from the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets.
Huh. So they claim to be doing everything they can to minimize impact on Lake Champlain, but they’re using far more fertilizer than ever before?
Something’s wrong with this picture.
If you’re looking for clarification, don’t depend on the Agency of Agriculture. It has the same kind of dual role — regulator and promoter — that caused so much trouble for the Agency of Commerce and Community Development over the EB-5 program.
And the Ag Agency’s response to Allen’s report was classc promoter-speak. Cary Giguere, chief of the Agriculture Resource Management Division:
“He uses a limited selected subset of data to tell a story,” Giguere said by email. “He may have some valid points, however we respectfully feel that it does not capture and present the entire story.”
Ag Secretary Chuck Ross points out that the raw tonnage of chemical killers may be higher, but the actual chemicals have changed.
“He doesn’t mention there are chemicals that are no longer in use that are more toxic or are a higher exposure risk,” Ross said. “Those subtleties are not mentioned in the report. As an agency, we have moved away from some chemicals and limited others over time.”
Which likely mitigates the raw numbers, but doesn’t entirely explain them. And it does nothing to address the increased use of fertilizers.
Beyond that, it’s difficult to square the numbers with Ross’ insistence that farmers are doing everything they can to limit their impact on the environment.
Allen’s numbers may not tell the entire story, but they do tell a compelling one: Vermont agriculture wields potent political influence thanks to its bucolic, traditional image, but that image is at best an incomplete picture of modern Vermont farming. And, in my opinion, a misleading one.
NOTE. One of my readers pointed out that planting Monsanto’s GMO corn allows greater use of its tame herbicide RoundUp, which might contribute to the general increase in herbicide use. However, two things:
— Monsanto claims that using its GMO corn allows farmers to use less RoundUp. Granted, “claims” and “sales techniques” may be two different things… however…
— Vermont farmers are using a lot more than just RoundUp:
But the most common herbicides in use are products like Lumax, manufactured by the Swiss company Syngenta, which contain persistent, active ingredients like atrazine and metolachlor. Between 70 percent and 80 percent of herbicides farmers use are some combination of atrazine, metolachlor and a handful of other chemicals, according to state officials.