EPA-Approved Dicamba Is an Airborne Menace and Some States Are Banning It

Soy beans plants that have been negatively affected by dicamba.

Bob Scott, University of Arkansas

The herbicide dicamba, marketed by Monsanto under the brand name Xtend, is one of the most controversial topics in agriculture today.

What is dicamba?

Dicamba is an herbicide that selectively kills broad-leafed weeds (as opposed to plants in the grass family). It is not a new herbicide; it’s been around for decades, though it’s historically been used mostly as a pre-emergent (meaning it was applied to the soil prior to planting to kill weeds).

It was just last year that genetically-modified dicamba-resistant seeds—both cotton and soybean—hit the market under the Monsanto brandname Xtend. Those seeds came with a huge caveat, however, in that farmers weren’t legally allowed to spray dicamba on their fields. That’s because dicamba is highly volatile (meaning that it’s easily airborne and susceptible to drift, hence these issues) and it was only in November of 2016 that a (supposedly) less-volatile version was approved for spraying for the 2017 season. Last year, we published a thorough dicamba explainer, which you can read for more.

If you’re thinking, “Wait a second, how could Monsanto release a seed that’s resistant to a specific pesticide when that pesticide couldn’t legally be used?” you’re not the only one. Despite warnings not to, farmers began illegally spraying dicamba on Xtend fields (shocking!) last season. And apparently this season’s new, improved—and EPA-approved—dicamba isn’t as drift-resistant as thought. There are still plenty of reports of dicamba making it’s way to fields where it shouldn’t be.

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If dicamba lands on a field that isn’t planted with Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant crops, the impact can be devastating. Non-resistant soybeans that come into contact with dicamba suffer from puckered leaves, buckled pods, and stunted growth. Farms from Arkansas to North Carolina have been hit; millions of acres have been affected. Monsanto has been sued over this; the lawsuits are ongoing. There’s already been one report of a murder over dicamba spraying. Seriously.

What can farmers affected by dicamba drift do?

There are reports that federal crop insurance won’t cover damage from dicamba drift, as the crop insurance only covers natural disasters like floods and fire. Theoretically, affected famers could rip out their crops and plant Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant seed, but forcing farmers to lock into the products of a company due to damage inflicted by that company seems pretty ridiculous.

What does Monsanto have to say?

In an interview with industry publication CropLife, Monsanto’s “North American Crop Protection Systems Lead,” Ty Witten, offered a litany of excuses. He claimed that dicamba might be getting unfairly blamed, saying: “Other herbicides can mask themselves or be assumed it was dicamba but it really wasn’t, and we’re seeing some of that as well.”

He repeated Monsanto’s claim that growers are applying the pesticide incorrectly, offering a meandering anecdote about meeting a farmer who had left a residue of another chemical in his spraying applicator which affected the volatility of the dicamba, and another about a farmer who had to use colored smoke bombs to gauge the wind at every given moment. “The beautiful and difficult thing about biology is things happen,” he said.

When asked what he recommends for those who have been drifted on and suffered damage, he appeared to either not understand or ignore the question, instead addressing only the customers who have been spraying dicamba.

Can’t the government do anything about this?

Actually, yes! The Arkansas State Plant Board proposed an emergency ban on dicamba, which was approved by the governor on June 30. And on July 7th, Arkansas and Missouri both issued temporary bans on the use and sale of dicamba.

“I hope that folks will continue to not make a knee-jerk reaction, to get real data and information before you make an action change to confirm or disprove that applications techniques were followed or that the correct purchase of herbicide was used definitively,” said Witten in that same interview. Reuters called the dicamba roll-out “Monsanto’s largest-ever technology launch.”

Whether the federal government will get involved is still an open question. When the EPA approved dicamba for crop spraying last November, they predicted that careful application would reduce the risk of drift, but after hundreds of reports, it may be time to revisit that idea. We’ll keep you posted on any updates.

EPA-Approved Dicamba Is an Airborne Menace and Some States Are Banning It