ASA Survey Shows Herbicide Strategy Compliance Difficult for Farmers

Feb 08, 2024

Scott Gerlt, PhD and Kyle Kunkler

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed several pesticide registration plans that could significantly affect farmers’ abilities to utilize herbicides. EPA is responsible for approving registrations on pesticides in the United States and has consistently been found by courts to have not properly evaluated the registrations’ effects on endangered species. In order to meet deadlines resulting from these lawsuits, EPA has put forward several proposals to meet its Endangered Species Act obligations including the Vulnerable Species Pilot Program and the Herbicide Strategy. Further background on this issue and the VSPP can be found in a previous Economist’s Angle. That work found that the VSPP could be prohibitively expensive for soybean growers in the affected areas. ASA surveyed soybean producers about their ability to meet the proposed Herbicide Strategy obligations and found that most were not currently meeting the compliance requirements of the proposal.

While the VSPP is focused on protecting a small list of endangered species, the Herbicide Strategy paints with a much broader brush by applying generally to herbicides by including over 900 listed species. EPA proposes to establish two main types of areas: those where generalist species occur and those where species with obligated relationships to plants occur. In plain English, the generalist species are endangered species that do not have an obligated (or dependent) relationship with a specific type of plant. The species with obligated relationships are dependent upon a specific type of plant. As a result, these species fall under Pesticide Use Limitation Areas (PULA), which have more stringent herbicide requirements.

Figure 1 and Figure 2 show the generalist areas and PULAs in the proposal. Each category has four subcategories. The specific mitigation requirements depend on which subcategory/PULA a farm falls in. The area in PULAs is much smaller than the general areas. However, smaller does not mean small. For instance, nearly the entire state of Iowa falls in one PULA. There are almost no acres of cropland that do not fall into one of the generalist areas—even if that acre is not in a PULA.

Figure 1: Generalist Species Areas Under the Herbicide Strategy










Source: EPA

Figure 2: Dependent Species Areas (PULAs) Under the Herbicide Strategy










Source: EPA

EPA gives some level of flexibility in the runoff/erosion mitigations that can be utilized to meet the compliance requirements. Herbicide users have a total number of points that they must meet for a given herbicide, crop and area. They can choose from potential options that generate points toward that total. Table 1 shows the matrix for a specific PULA. In this PULA, soybean users must have six points to apply 2,4-D and 9 points to apply dicamba.

Table 1: Runoff/erosion Points for Terrestrial Areas and Dicots in PULA 1






Source: EPA

The options for obtaining points are in Table 2 and Table 3. Producers have different ways of obtaining points, such as field characteristics, reduced herbicide application, in-field measures, field-adjacent measures, water retention systems and combining multiple categories. If a producer is already using a measure, it will apply toward the necessary points. Several potential exemptions to the point requirements are in the proposal, including implementing a mitigation plan from a conservation expert, subsurface drainage into a retention pond or saturation buffer zone, and including at least 1,000 feet between the field and habitat for listed species.

Table 2: Potential Mitigation Measures and Efficacy Points (a)










Source: EPA

Table 3: Potential Mitigation Measures and Efficacy Points (b)











Source: EPA

While EPA’s proposal for the Herbicide Strategy provides the framework, it does not estimate the ability of producers to comply with the potential regulations. To better understand this, ASA conducted a survey in Dec. 2023 of its board and producers involved in affiliate state soy organizations. The survey asked for respondent location (Figure 3), crops grown, herbicides used and current mitigation practices, among other information. This sample covered much of the soybean growing region and resulted in 75 responses. Given the nonrandom selection of participants and sample size, the results of the survey should not be treated as statistically significant, definitive evidence. However, given the geographic dispersion of the producers (24 states), range of farm size (320 to 9,000 acres) and number of commodities grown (15), coupled with a lack of alternative attempts to quantify the Herbicide Strategy compliance ability of growers, the results provide the best snapshot to date of potential impacts.

Figure 3











Table 4 shows herbicide usage among respondents. The results are only for active ingredients that EPA has identified in its case study in the proposal. Of the respondents, 99% use at least one of the identified herbicides. The most popular are 2,4-D (88%), metachlor/S-metachlor (76%), dicamba (60%) and metribuzin (58%), as a majority of respondents used these ingredients.









Note: This is not an exhaustive list of herbicides that will be covered by the Herbicide Strategy, only those EPA provided as case studies under the proposal.

Not only are the listed herbicides used by nearly all producers in the survey, but respondents also face significant challenges in altering the mix they are currently using (Figure 4). Herbicide-resistant weeds are becoming a major challenge to growers, with 41% rating it as a major issue. Only 11% do not have at least moderate problems with herbicide resistance. Largely as a result of herbicide-resistance, growers have limited flexibility to change their herbicide mix (Figure 5). Nearly all of the respondents (93%) stated that they could not easily remove from their lineup. In other words, swapping or removing herbicides to lower the efficacy point requirements under the Herbicide Strategy is difficult.









Table 5 shows the eligible mitigations currently utilized on respondents’ farms. “All/Most” corresponds to 75% or more of fields planted, “Some” corresponds to 25% to 74% of fields planted and “Few” corresponds to 1% to 24%. Over half the participating farmers used no-till or reduced tillage on all or most of their acres. Less than 10% didn’t use either conservation tillage. Beyond tillage, most of the mitigations are neither widely utilized nor available, as no other option exceeds 50% adoption for all or most of the respondents. In fact, for 11 of the 18 mitigations listed in the survey, over half the respondents did not utilize the mitigation on any of their fields.














Note: Number in parentheses indicates the number of efficacy points given for the practice

* At least two of the following categories must have a mitigation measure to qualify: in-field, adjacent to field, or water retention system. The adoption rate (column) was recorded at the lowest level of the practices that met the qualification. The “None” column contains the observations that did not qualify.

While understanding mitigation adoption is useful, it only tells part of the story. More important to the Herbicide Strategy implementation is whether the mitigations will be adequate to meet the efficacy point requirements for herbicide usage. ASA utilized the location data of each farm along with the reported herbicide usage and crops grown to determine the potential efficacy points needed for each respondent. This was compared against the efficacy points generated based upon current practices.

The following assumptions were made during this analysis:

  1. None of the exemptions applied to any of the farms.
  2. If there was any question about whether the grower operated in the PULA or the general Generalist Species area, it was assumed to be in the Generalist Species area, which has fewer point requirements.
  3. Growers will not remove an herbicide from the weed management program due to the Herbicide Strategy.
  4. Growers will not change crops grown on the farm.
  5. Only mitigations used on all or most of the fields (75% or more) were counted toward efficacy points.
  6. No efficacy points were awarded for herbicide application rate reductions.

The last assumption was made due to the difficulty of determining this information. The survey did ask whether producers believed this was an option (Figure 6). Most responded with uncertainty (65%) while “Yes” and “No” was close to evenly split with less than 20% each. The ability of a farmer to do this is likely going to depend upon the specific herbicide, equipment available, weed and herbicide resistance pressures, and farm size.

Figure 6











Figure 7 shows the results of the analysis. Only 21% of respondents would meet the efficacy point requirements for their farm with the practices currently in place. Nearly half (48%) of those surveyed lack five or more points. In short, if the Herbicide Strategy were implemented today, most producers would lose access to herbicides they currently deem necessary for crop production. Even if pesticide application rates are an option for these producers, they would need a 50% or higher reduction from the maximum application rate to use the herbicide.

Figure 7










While the potential point deficit in Figure 7 is based upon implementation with current practices, the survey followed up by asking how costly the producer would expect the adoption of new practices to be. Nearly half (46%) expected their adoption to be moderately costly while another 38% thought it would extremely costly. Only 13% expected them to be slightly costly, and 3% expected it to not be costly at all.

Figure 8










EPA’s proposed Herbicide Strategy is an attempt for the agency to bring pesticide registrations into compliance with the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, like the Vulnerable Species Pilot Project, the proposal seems to bring requirements to pesticide application that are likely to change agricultural production. Our sample corresponds to 99% or more of producers who would incur compliance obligations under the Herbicide Strategy. Our survey data indicates that about 80% of producers would not be in compliance with the proposal and would face moderate to extreme costs to become compliant. Given the herbicide resistance issues and lack of substitutable options shown by survey respondents, it appears that farmers would be forced to adopt very pricy mitigations, accept lower yields due to weed pressure, or to stop growing crops with high efficacy point requirements. This work provides evidence of a meaningful impact on U.S. agriculture if the proposal is adopted in its current form.