The Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it will approve new formulations of the herbicide dicamba.
This past June, an appeals court revoked the EPA’s approval of dicamba following several years of disastrous effects due to drifting onto unprotected plants. The new approval comes with some new restrictions for use and will go into effect for the 2021 season through 2025.
Dicamba is a broad-spectrum herbicide that has been around for decades, but its most recent chapter began four years ago, with the release of dicamba-resistant seed for cotton and soy. The seeds themselves were available before the accompanying herbicide was released, meaning that farmers began spraying older formulations of dicamba, which had been known for years to have a singular problem: it vaporizes and drifts.
Even after the accompanying herbicide, which was sold under different names by Monsanto (later purchased by Bayer), BASF, and Syngenta (later bought by the Chinese state-owned ChemChina), was released, “dicamba drift” continued and expanded. Within a few years, it was clear that millions of acres of surrounding soybean fields, other farms, and even forests were being harmed by dicamba that took to the wind. Monsanto blamed farmers for improper application, but eventually restrictions began, followed by state bans, followed by the court decision in June that essentially said that dicamba should never have been permitted in the first place.
But earlier in October, some of the dicamba producers announced that they had come up with new formulations that would reduce dicamba drift. The EPA will approve three of these new formulations. In a press conference on Tuesday, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said, “EPA has determined that these registrations address the concerns outlined in the June 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision.”
Those new regulations include national cutoff days for dicamba spraying: June 30 for soybeans and July 30 for cotton. This is actually later than some states had in place already; Minnesota’s was June 20. The new regulations also include an increased buffer zone between the site of spraying and surrounding fields, though that buffer is now still only 240 feet (and 310 feet when endangered species are nearby) downwind. Dicamba has been shown to drift for over a mile in some conditions.
The bigger new rule is that dicamba must be mixed with adjuvants, in line with the breakthrough the chemical companies say they have had. The EPA says that their research, which included “significant amounts of new scientific information and carefully considered input from stakeholder groups,” according to Successful Farming, indicates that this new formulation renders dicamba safe.
Those stakeholder groups likely include groups like the National Cotton Council, which represents cotton farmers who have spent a great deal of money on dicamba-resistant seeds which would potentially be useless. AgWeb notes that the chairman of the National Cotton Council applauds the EPA’s decision.
States are still permitted to set their own regulations, but those states will need to work with the EPA to set firmer regulations (or bans) in motion.