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Popular organic weed-control product found to include banned chemicals

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It seemed too good to be true, and it appears it may have been — a new organic weed treatment marketed to work nearly as well as synthetic-chemical-herbicides not allowed in organic farming.

Many organic-certified farmers from around the country snapped up the co-packaged product called Agro Gold Weed Slayer (WS) and began to apply it to their fields. So did some local organic wine-grape farmers in the Napa Valley, using the product to keep their vineyard weeds at bay.

“I was skeptical at first that it would work, but there was a lot of buzz when it first came out and we had clients who were willing to try it,” Madeleine Rowan-Davis, a senior viticulturist at Napa Valley’s Atlas Vineyard Management Co. wrote in an email. “Once I saw how effective it was, I expanded its use to other sites.”

But on Dec. 4, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) took the rare step of issuing a stop-use order for Agro Gold WS — made by Florida-based Agro Research International, LLC (ARI) — when it was found to include diquat and glyphosate, two synthetic chemicals not allowed in organic farming. The latter, in fact, is the key ingredient in Monsanto’s (now Bayer’s) controversial Roundup.

“Stop orders like this are not common in my experience,” Bradley Hanson, an extension weed specialist at UC Davis, wrote in an email. “I don’t recall anything similar with an herbicide in the last 15 years since I’ve been involved with weed-management research in the state.”

Farmers who have used the product have plenty of questions.

“I was skeptical, but when my sales rep showed me the data I was sold,” said a Napa Valley organic grape farmer who asked for anonymity. “We’d never seen an organic weed-control treatment work so well in the vineyard. It was a real blow to find out it may have included banned chemicals. I mean, do we now lose the organic certification that we worked years for and spent thousands of dollars on? Also, how does this happen? How does a chemical in Roundup get into what was supposed to be an organic-farming product in the first place?”

These and other questions are being asked by many in the farming community around the western United States.

Beyond California, organic-farming regulators in Washington and Oregon have placed bans on Agro Gold WS, the state of Idaho is investigating and the federal Environmental Protection Agency is “looking more closely at this issue,” according to an agency spokesperson.

ARI denies it adds chemicals to its organic mixture.

“At this time our legal team is preparing our response to CDFA with facts that we hope will clear any misunderstandings or interpretation of test results,” Marc Lajeunesse, president and CEO of ARI, wrote in an email response to questions. “We will keep you informed of any progress so that you, at that time, can let your audience know all that needs to be known. All I can tell you right now is that we at Agro Research do not use [add] any glyphosate or diquat to our product.”

One of the larger distributors of the Agro Gold WS, Wilbur-Ellis, is no longer selling the product.

“Wilbur-Ellis previously distributed Agro Gold WS, a product manufactured by Agro Research International, in compliance with the approved label,” Jeanne Forbis, vice president of corporate communications at Wilbur-Ellis wrote in an email. “In accordance with the stop-sale issued by the CDFA, Wilbur-Ellis no longer sells this product. We are fully cooperating with regulators and are working closely with our customers to assist them.”

The California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) issued a statement soon after the CDFA stop order was announced.

“All materials from ARI previously approved for your operation are now in unknown status, with the exception of Agro Gold WS, which is considered prohibited in organic production. You may use up existing supplies of any previously approved Agro Research International materials, as shown on your Organic System Plan (OSP) Materials List, with the exception of the prohibited product Agro Gold WS, which may not be used.”

In a subsequent email, CCOF chief certification officer April Crittenden wrote, “We encourage organic producers who were using Agro Gold to contact their organic certifier for more information. The product was WSDA listed as ‘approved for use in organic’ prior to the notice. Therefore, producers were using it under good faith that it was allowed. As long as the material was on their approved Organic System Plan we would not issue a noncompliance for use prior to the notice.”

Alan Schreiber is an organic farmer in Eltopia, Washington, who had used Agro Gold WS.

“No legitimate organic grower would ever use glyphosate or diquat,” he wrote. “Honestly, I am pissed.”

When asked if this might be accidental contamination, Schreiber whose resume includes a doctoral degree, time working as a pesticide specialist for Washington State University and two years working at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., was skeptical.

“If the Agro Gold were stored in a tank that had both products in it and if the product was transferred through pipes that were contaminated with both products, it could cause this,” he wrote. “However, because diquat and glyphosate are so different from each other and used so differently they would NEVER be together. No one would ever use a tank to hold or a pipe to transfer both products. That would never happen.”

Exactly how much-contaminated product was used remains unknown.

“There are a number of weed and crops researchers who have evaluated or at least dabbled with the product [Agro Gold WS] and mostly have had a relatively good impression,” Hanson wrote, “[but] to my knowledge none have had their specific herbicide lots tested to know if they are contaminated or not.”

It’s reasonable that only a few tested the combined Agro Gold WS product because according to the Agro Grow label it contains only microbes Streptomyces rimosus and Bacillus megaterium that are “…considered naturally derived, non-pathogenic, non-toxic, non-GMO, non-hazardous and non-corrosive.” The Weed Slayer element is labeled as containing only water, molasses and eugenol, the aromatic oily liquid extract from clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, basil and bay leaf.

Due to the innocuous nature of the ingredients listed on the label, these two products are not as closely monitored or regulated as synthetic chemicals. These non-regulated products are also not required to be included in pesticide reporting to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and are not found in the state’s Pesticide Information Portal database. Therefore, there is no way to confirm exactly who applied these products and how much has been used. A request for use and/or sales data for Agro Gold WS to Wilbur-Ellis, the CDFA, the FDA and ARI resulted in no comment by the time of publication.

“Because Weed Slayer was made from eugenol, which is on the federal exempt list, there was no registration necessary — therefore no reg number and no recording of usage,” wrote John Roncoroni, extension farm advisor emeritus of vineyard weed science, University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE).

Concerns over exposure to harmful chemicals to crops and people

Because Agro Gold WS was believed to contain only ingredients such as molasses and essential oils, another fear is how many of those who actually applied the products to their fields wore appropriate protective gear.

“I am not sure exactly what the dose of the two products are in Agro Gold, but I fear that my workers were exposed to herbicide levels that could have posed a risk because of inadequate PPE,” Schreiber wrote.

Why did organic farmers seem to flock to Agro Gold WS in the first place?

“We don’t have many options for effective organic weed control in vineyards,” said another Napa Valley organic grape farmer who also didn’t want to be named. “Even in non-organic vineyards my clients used the product because everyone was fleeing from Roundup after the recent lawsuits and bad press. I don’t know anyone who used Roundup last year.”

In 2018, Bayer, the German chemical and pharmaceutical maker, paid $63 billion for Monsanto, with one of the firm’s larger assets being Roundup. In the sale Bayer inherited lawsuits and tens of thousands of claims that Roundup caused cancer. In 2020 the German company agreed to pay more than $10 billion in settlements, but in an unbelievable twist was allowed to continue to sell Roundup without adding warning labels about its health risks, according to the New York Times.

Even before the Bayer lawsuits were settled, farmers who had used Roundup in the past worried about possible liability. A mad scramble to find alternatives ensued, with many rushing to purchase Agro Gold WS, although the exact amount of total sales is unknown. Requests for sales data from Agro Research International had not been answered at the time of this publication.

Another reason for the rush to Agro Gold WS was the pandemic’s squeeze on the labor market.

“Historically, our crew of eight would spend a significant amount of time dealing with weeds,” said another Napa Valley organic grape farmer who asked for anonymity. “But this year, with COVID-19, it just wasn’t a normal year. It was hard to get and keep crews going, and our costs had increased with all the added requirements. So having a spray that one person could apply made a lot of sense.”

How exactly diquat and glyphosate were found in Agro Gold WS remains unclear, although it appears numerous scientists and growers had become increasingly curious about how exactly an organic-nonsynthetic product worked so well.

“As I understand it, the questions about the integrity of the product were raised by UCCE scientists and growers,” wrote Monica L. Cooper, viticulture advisor at UCCE, Napa County. “This is consistent with our UCCE mission to ensure the continued economic prosperity and ecological sustainability of agricultural operations in California in partnership with industry and government agencies.”

All of those farmers — organic or not — who used Agro Gold and have questions about what happened with Agro Gold WS will have to wait for answers.

Citing an ongoing investigation, the CDFA declined to answer questions about the concentration of glyphosate and diquat found within the tested samples or to say how widespread the use of the product has been. At this time farmers and the broader scientific community wait for more information.

I am glad for a stop order,” Rowan-Davis wrote. “If further examination determines there was a mistake, and it is actually a safe-organic product then we can always go back to using it in the future. However, I would need to regain some confidence first. Where I used [Agro Gold] Weed Slayer I made that [decision] because it was organic, not because it was the most effective product available, and I’m not interested in using something that isn’t what it claims to be.”

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