(Beyond Pesticides, June 12, 2017) Once again, there are reports that soybean and cotton fields are being damaged by off-site drift of the toxic herbicide dicamba. Last summer, farmers in Missouri, Arkansas, and Tennessee reported widespread crop damage from dicamba drift, which led to reduced yields. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched a criminal investigation at several Missouri locations into what they said was the illegal spraying of dicamba in October 2016. This year, reports of dicamba drift and damage are already being reported in Arkansas, and 25 formal complaints have already been filed, according to the state Plant Board.
In summer 2016, illegal applications of dicamba damaged thousands of acres of soybeans, cotton, ornamental trees and fruits and vegetables. After numerous complaints, EPA launched a criminal investigation into the illegal spraying of dicamba, an investigation that is still ongoing. Many suspect that farmers who planted Roundup Ready 2 Xtend® and XTENDFLEX® Cotton, the new dicamba-tolerant genetically engineered (GE) seeds in the region, when faced with a proliferation of pigweed, illegally sprayed dicamba across their fields leading to drift and off-site crop damage to other farmers. This year, although it is too early to say how many acres have been affected or what specific formulations of the readily available herbicide were used, many farmers are bracing for levels of damage seen last year.
One Arkansas farmer, who reported his damage to the state Plant Board, noticed the damage to his field the day after a neighboring farmer sprayed BASF’s Engenia, a dicamba product developed for genetically engineered dicamba-tolerant crops. The farmer noted that the application was made according to label directions, but dicamba-drift still occurred onto his field. In Arkansas, the conditions that lead to the widespread damage seen last year were the same. Farmers are being encouraged to plant Monsanto’s dicamba-tolerant GE seed, but the accompanying herbicide formulation from Monsanto, which the industry giant claims has low volatility, has not been approved in Arkansas, according to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette. So far the product, XtendiMax®, has been approved in several other states, including Missouri and Tennessee. Arkansas’ Plant Board also debated and voted 12-0 to push measures that would ban or limit the use of certain forms of dicamba in the state last November. This came after a contentious hearing where farmers expressed their displeasure at the extensive crop damage they experienced. This year the board began requiring anyone who physically applies legal formulations of dicamba to complete an online training and certification course, and plans to levy hefty fines for “egregious” violations of laws restricting dicamba spraying.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) deregulated Monsanto’s dicamba-tolerant Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans and Bollgard II XtendFlexa® cotton in January 2015, but it was not until November 2016 that EPA registered the use of specific dicamba formulations, Xtendimax and VaporGrip for use on these crops. Monsanto describes the dicamba-tolerant GE crops as “designed to provide farmers with more consistent, flexible control of weeds, especially tough-to-manage and glyphosate-resistant weeds to maximize crop yield potential.” What was viewed by industry and EPA several years ago as a unique occurrence, weed resistance is now acknowledged to be a serious economic problem for farmers. While the agrichemical industry and its researchers can no longer ignore weed resistance to pesticides, it continues to promote more chemical applications in GE crops as the solution, despite the success of organic systems.
Earlier this year, farmers, environmentalists, and conservation groups filed a federal lawsuit challenging the EPA’s approval of Monsanto’s XtendiMax with Vapor Grip Technology, which is claimed to have lower volatility. The petitioners claim that EPA violated its duties under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) in issuing a conditional registration, and that it did not adhere to duties under the Endangered Species Act that require EPA to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure registration would not harm any listed species. Monsanto is currently embroiled in another legal battle with a farmer who projected that he would lose $1.5 million in revenue from crop damage due to the formulation’s release (Bader Farms Inc., v. Monsanto Co., Case No. 1:16-CV-299 SNLJ). This farmer seeks compensation for extensive damage to his peach trees, which he blames on the illegal, or non-labeled use of dicamba, brought on by sales of Monsanto’s new, GE dicamba-tolerant crops.
Pesticide drift is an inevitable problem of pesticide application, and dicamba drift and subsequent crop injury to broadleaf crops has been a frequent problem. Abnormal leaf growth, floral development, reduced yield, and reduced quality have all been observed from dicamba drift. A study published by Pennsylvania State scientists in late 2015 found dicamba drift was “frequently responsible for sublethal, off-target damage” to plants and insects. Researchers find that even very low rates of dicamba herbicide exposure negatively affected plant flowering, and thus insect pollination. Dicamba has also been linked to damage of the kidney and liver, neurotoxicity, and developmental impacts. Historically, to mitigate against potential risks from pesticide drift, EPA has required buffer zones and application restrictions. However, these have not been sufficient to alleviate off-site crop damage and environmental contamination. Additionally, as demonstrated with these incidents, there are challenges with pesticide product label compliance.
While pesticide drift is a harmful consequence of chemical-intensive food production, there are alternatives that safeguard the environment and human health, while allowing for the sustainable production of food. Beyond Pesticides suggests an approach that rejects uses and exposures deemed acceptable under risk assessment calculations, and instead focuses on safer alternatives that are proven effective, such as organic agriculture, which prohibits the use of toxic chemicals. By strengthening on-farm resources, such as soil fertility, pasture and biodiversity, organic farmers can minimize and even avoid the production challenges that most genetically engineered organisms have been falsely-marketed as solving.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.