Proposed Weed Eradication Changes Draw Environmental Concern
Bill would give Department of Agriculture oversight of ‘noxious weed’ designation.
The rows of grapevines at Somerset Ridge Vineyard and Winery near Paola are withering, with dying leaves and shriveling fruit.
But that’s expected this time of year.
The prospect of it happening in the middle of the growing season concerns owner Dennis Reynolds more. Grapes are a sensitive crop, especially when it comes to herbicides that may drift over from neighboring farms or ditches.
“In certain states their use is heavily restricted or banned in certain areas,” Reynolds said of the chemicals that kill weeds. “But in a state like Kansas — where sensitive crop producers are very small in number and economic impact so far, whereas large-scale farmers that use these herbicides have much more political power — then we see kind of unfettered usage of them.”
The Kansas Legislature is mulling changes to its weed eradication laws — changes that could affect where and when such herbicides are sprayed.
Senate Bill 134 would shift the responsibility for determining which plants should be designated “noxious weeds,” and subsequently targeted for destruction, from the Legislature to the Kansas Department of Agriculture. It also would give more latitude to individual counties to designate noxious weeds and spray them with increasingly caustic substances.
Proponents say the changes will inject more science into the process of weed eradication and enable government to move more quickly to get rid of invasive species before they crowd out cash crops and good livestock forage.
But opponents worry that big business will control the process and that the chemicals used to eradicate problem weeds will have unintended consequences not only for products like Reynolds’ grapes but for human health.
Kansas has 12 weeds declared “noxious” by the Legislature, including the white-flowered Sericea lespedeza and the thorny-looking musk thistle.
Chad Bontrager, deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said the current definition of a noxious weed in state law is “a little bit circular.” It basically states that a noxious weed is any weed that the Legislature has declared noxious.
Once a weed is declared noxious, landowners are required by law to control and limit it on their property. Government subsidies for herbicides — the preferred control method — are provided. County weed directors are empowered to go onto any property and eradicate weeds at the owner’s expense if the owner does not comply with the law.
Bontrager told the Legislature’s joint 2015 Special Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources last month that a host of factors should be taken into account when deciding whether a weed is “noxious”: Is it an invasive species? What’s its lifespan? What are its reproductive methods, annual seed production and germination? Is it a host for pests or pathogens? And what effect does it have on native species?
While the Legislature may consider all those factors, under current law it’s not a requirement.
“The Department of Agriculture would like to see a more rigorous, scientific and objective evaluation of potential noxious weeds in order to ensure we’re doing all we can to protect plant health and land owners in our state,” Bontrager said.
SB 134 would give the agriculture secretary the final word in declaring weeds “noxious,” after consulting with an 11-member advisory committee. The committee members, appointed by the secretary, would be:
- Three private landowners.
- Two weed specialists from Kansas State University recommended by university officials.
- Two agriculture industry representatives recommended by the Kansas Agribusiness Retailers Association.
- Two county weed directors recommended by the Kansas County Weed Directors Association.
- One county commissioner recommended by the Kansas Association of Counties.
- One natural resource management professional from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
The agribusiness retailers association and the Kansas Cooperative Council are on board with the changes. Lobbyists for those organizations said they usually prefer that new mandates be made by the Legislature through statute rather than through rules and regulations from executive branch officials. But in this case, the desire to take a more scientific approach to noxious weed designation trumped that philosophy, they said.
“The Department of Agriculture would like to see a more rigorous, scientific and objective evaluation of potential noxious weeds in order to ensure we’re doing all we can to protect plant health and land owners in our state.” - Chad Bontrager, deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture
Absent from the advisory council is any seat specifically for those who produce herbicide-sensitive crops like grapes or cotton.
“We would certainly want the sensitive crop growers to be represented on any such advisory committee,” Reynolds said.
Paul Johnson is a lobbyist for the Kansas Rural Center, a nonprofit focused on sustainability.
Johnson said one of the three landowner seats on the advisory board should go to a sensitive crop producer. In addition, he said, the board should include a seat for someone from an environmental group like the Sierra Club or Audubon of Kansas.
Zack Pistora, the Kansas Sierra Club’s lobbyist, suggested the panel should include an expert from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to advise on herbicide toxicity.
“The bugs and superweeds are starting to happen, so we’re escalating the type of chemicals we’re using,” Pistora said. “It’s a concern.”
Counties get more leeway
Johnson also is concerned about the increasing toxicity of herbicides used to kill noxious weeds.
He believes another provision in SB 134 would give city and county governments the authority to declare any weed not on the state list noxious in their jurisdiction, and allow county officials to use any chemical herbicide to kill it on public lands — even chemicals not on the state’s cost-sharing list.
Johnson said many weeds used to be controlled with a chemical herbicide called glyphosate, commonly known by its commercial name, Roundup.
But as plants have developed resistance to that, a more powerful herbicide known as 2, 4-D has been employed.
“I think we’re at the point where agribusiness is getting real concerned about the weed situation because they’ve overused glyphosate and Roundup Ready, and more superweeds are coming into the process,” Johnson said. “They just want a quicker way to identify plants they can’t control with regular herbicides that we have today and just step up the toxicity.”
He fears that the noxious weed law is on its way to being streamlined so that more weeds can be added and more toxic herbicides can be used without deliberation during the legislative process — a process that ensured environmentalists were able to air their concerns during committee hearings.
Any changes to the noxious weed law, he said, should include a provision requiring landowners to use the “least toxic chemicals in regards to human and animal health” as they start trying to eradicate their weeds and then step up from there.
A 13-nation study on the cancer-causing potential of 2, 4-D was published in June in The Lancet. The researchers determined there was “inadequate evidence” of a link between cancer and high levels of 2, 4-D exposure in workers who manufacture and apply the substance.
But there is evidence that the herbicide can cause damage to crops like grapes, even at far lower application rates than those recommended by the product label.
It also tends to drift farther than other herbicides — a concern for people like Reynolds.
There are other methods for preventing and controlling problem weeds, but herbicides frequently are the most effective.
Pistora of the Sierra Club said controlling noxious weeds is important to protect native plants and animals, but a judicious, deliberate approach to eradicating problem weeds is best.
“It is a balance,” he said.
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