Research from California about atrazine, a popular herbicide used extensively in corn in North America, drew headlines last week because of the chemical’s apparent effect on frogs — the researcher claimed that it changed the gender of many of the animals in his experiment. Critics were skeptical because the researcher has made claims against atrazine before, but no one has been able to substantiate them. I write about this controversy in my Urban Cowboy column in the Guelph Mercury, and I underline the need for research to try to replicate the California study. That way, the farm sector can either make adjustments to its crop protection program, or get on with feeding the world.

I’m also hoping the media will be as interested in the story if and when the California study is disproved, although I doubt that it will, because healthy frogs (or healthy anything, for that matter) make lousy headlines.

The photo below is the North American bullfrog, photographed in B.C. by Don MacKinnon/Sterling News.

The column in the Mercury is now off line; here’s what it said:

Healthy frogs make lousy headlines

It’s hard to resist a story about a popular and time-tested farm chemical that, in a laboratory experiment, is said to have made some boy frogs impotent and turned the rest into girl frogs that only produced boy frogs.

It’s weird enough to make your head spin. But even if it sounds like science fiction, the media can’t ignore the story when it breaks, especially if it first appears in an academic publication.

That’s what happened last week in California. There, university researcher Tyrone Hayes set North America on its ear with news that he’d “chemically castrated” frogs by exposing them to the herbicide atrazine.

He says that exposure either made male frogs ho-hum about sex, or turned them into girls whose subsequent offspring were all male.

Very bizarre. And stranger yet when you consider in North America, atrazine is extremely popularly for weed control in corn. Proponents like calling it the most tested herbicide ever, and point to 50 years of use, and 800-plus research studies and reviews (as recent as 2007 in Canada), that have failed to show atrazine is harmful to humans or wildlife.  It’s unpopular in Europe, but even the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says it’s not a problem.

So what’s up with this study?

Well, it seems researcher Hayes is what’s up. Fox News, never the shrinking violet, calls Hayes a junk scientist, an environmentalist who is aligned with anti-corporate thinking. He has a thing about atrazine. He’s gone after it before and made some harsh claims, but no other scientists could reproduce his results.

And that’s the key. The measuring stick for establishing scientific proof is whether the research can be replicated. Can other researchers get similar results if they follow the exact same procedures?

And if they can’t, will media be as attentive? Not likely. Healthy frogs make lousy headlines, and that’s not a disparaging comment on the media. They just do.

But expect to see anti-corporatism put forward as research,  as the ag sector tries to figure out ways to feed an increasingly hungry world.  It’s clearer all the time that farmers will need to grow more crops and raise more livestock on less land. Just last week, U.S. federal agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack announced Washington was  pursuing a land conservation policy that could reduce U.S. cropland by 1.5 per cent.

Vilsack’s plan is to take marginal or fragile land out of production, which is laudable. Usually such land is not particularly productive anyway, which helped make it agriculturally marginal in the first place. Or, if it is productive, it comes at an unacceptable environmental cost. Maybe it’s been found to house sensitive flora or fauna. Or maybe it’s too close to waterways. Dozens of reasons could exist for it being labelled marginal or fragile.

But to some extent, it also feeds people. It’s estimated the U.S. farmland that might be removed from production, some five million acres, could produce more than 150 million bushels of wheat, 200 million bushels of soybeans or 700 million bushels of corn.

If society supports activities such as marginal land preservation, it must give farmers an alternative. To produce more food with less land, farmers need access to safe technologies, including biotechnology, without running into unnecessary roadblocks. Politically, every time marginal land is set aside, farmers should stand up and applaud decision makers for being environmentally aware. But simultaneously, farmers should remind decision makers of their responsibility to ensure tools, technology and policies are in place to feed the world.

Atrazine is a tool and a technology. Does it make frogs go haywire? Good, replicated studies of Hayes’s research are needed to determine if indeed atrazine is the kind of problem he says it is. If so, make adjustments. If not, let’s get on with feeding the world.