LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — State agriculture officials, along with farmers, are grappling with a crisis caused by a proposed answer to weed infestation of crops in the state. Unlawful use of a herbicide is causing damage to hundreds of acres, and some specialists speculate it could even impact areas outside of agriculture, like trees and landscaping.
Hard Hit to Farmer Families
“Your heart sinks,” farmer Reed Storey said, driving us down a between rows of soybeans and cotton. “It’s a sad thing to drive up on or walk up on.”
Farmers like Storey keep an eye on the fields to be sure they’re reaping what they have sown. But recently, Storey noticed something very wrong in at least 400 acres of soybeans his family is counting on. Cupped, shriveled leaves are a surefire sign, Storey said, of illegal use of a well-known pesticide.
“The temptation has outweighed the consequences in this case,” he said, “This is a case of someone thinking only of themselves, without thinking about the consequences for our family.”
The State Plant Board, the state’s regulatory agency that monitors pesticide usage, has received more than 25 formal complaints and even more phone calls about so-called off label use of the herbicide dicamba. It’s a chemical banned from being used in a planted field, but some say it works particularly well on pigweed. That weed has become a massive problem in the state, with some strands showing resistance to herbicides like RoundUp.
“Those weeds are very efficient competitors and will take over a field and actually destroy a crop,” said Terry Walker, State Plant Board director.
Dicamba has been around a long time, but it is known to spread from the intended target with wind and humidity changes can even cause the chemical to lift and deposit it on other plants. Those two methods are known as physical drift and volatilization, respectively. Because the product label doesn’t authorize its use to be sprayed over the top of plants or after planting, those farmers who do so are using the chemical illegally or off-label.
A Crisis in the Cure?
Soybeans are extremely sensitive to dicamba, and weed scientists across the Mid-South, in Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas, have all begun to see large belts of dicamba damage in soybeans across these states. Missouri is currently dealing with more than 109 complaints of dicamba damage with an estimated 200,000 acres affected.
“Off-target issues we’re dealing with this year were very predictable,” said weed specialist Ford Baldwin, during a State Plant Board Pesticide Committee meeting last week.
This problem is cropping up now, experts like Baldwin said, because of a new RoundUp Ready 2 Xtend seed system marketed by Monsanto. It’s a two-part system: a seed that grows into dicamba resistant plants and a dicamba chemical formulation that its developers claim is less likely to spread off target.
The USDA approved the seed technology, which was sold commercially both in soybeans and cotton this year, but the chemical label is still pending before the EPA.
“From what I saw out there this year, it don’t make a rat’s rear-end what’s labeled,” Baldwin told the committee. “While it’s true the farmers in these instances did use the chemical off-label, companies have to take more responsibility for the herbicide end of their technologies.”
According to both the EPA and the USDA, the agencies coordinate closely to make sure both components in biotech agriculture systems are approved using scientific methods. Neither agency, though, provided an answer as to why it would not coordinate the approvals to coincide, or restrict the sale of the seed pending approval of the “safer” chemical.
Old formula dicamba is available and relatively cheap. For farmers who have already planted the new seed technology, temptation can prove too much, despite the risk of damage to fellow farmers. They know they can spray dicamba on their fields without causing harm, but it puts neighboring farmers’ plants in peril.
“It’s like putting ice cream in front of a kid and telling them they can’t eat it,” Storey said. “All these farmers heard when it came to this system appears to be ‘higher yields’ and ‘dicamba-resistant’.”
Storey, and other affected farmers we spoke with , feels like the responsibility doesn’t lie solely with the farmers who used the chemical off-label.
“I feel like it was very irresponsible of the company to release the seed without the chemical label,” Storey said. “I feel like the company should have withheld it from the market until then if they were really thinking about farmers. I would think a company would foresee these problems. We did.”
Taking Away a Choice?
Baldwin speculated to the Pesticide Committee during his presentation that the Monsanot RoundUp Ready2 Xtend system would be an “all or nothing technology.” According to Baldwin, he predicted that either all soybeans would have to be planted using the Xtend system, to protect against drift and volatility, or none of it could be planted to prevent future damage to non-resistant crops.
“Farmers are going to be forced to plant these beans,” said Danny Finch, one of the committee members.
“We’re not forcing anyone to plant them,” Rachel Hurley, Monsanto’s governmental relations liaison, responded.
“You’re not giving them any options. They’re going to plant them for defense,” Finch replied as many heads nodded around the room.
Many in the industry say they have never seen a company release a two-part system with only one component approved. And some speculated Monsanto hasn’t taken enough responsibility for deterring farmers who use its seed from using the dicamba chemical illegally.
“The marketing model appears to be, we developed this technology. We have this seed, and we have to sell all this seed at any cost,” Baldwin said. “Anything that happens after that is somebody else’s problem.”
Representatives from Monsanto at the meeting said the company wasn’t taking enforcement action against growers who use the chemical illegally, though it was considering it. They added that their sales representatives, farmers and all others in the company were made aware any use of dicamba off-label was illegal and not condoned.
“I think it’s always preferable to have people want to do the right thing for the right reasons,” said Boyd Cary, one of the Monsanto representatives at the meeting.
However, some members of the State Plant Board voiced concern over testimony from those who had already been sanctioned for off-label use. Those farmers, members said, claimed a Monsanto representative had told them to apply dicamba. The Monsanto employees at the meeting neither confirmed nor denied the claim, but did say that type of advice would go against the company’s policy.
“Ultimately, we are not the regulatory agency to address off-label use of a herbicide that is not part of our product line,” Kyel Richard, spokesperson for Monsanto said, in a follow up phone call. “I’m sure the regulatory agencies in each state will address those issues appropriately.”
When asked if Monsanto considered the possible off-label use of dicamba that was readily available prior to launching the seed technology and making farmers aware it was dicamba-resistant, Richard said the company firmly believes most farmers follow the law as required for pesticide usage.
“Safer” Formula Unlikely to Curb Chemical Affects
According to specialists, though, even the new formulation of dicamba that Monsanto is seeking approval for may not curb the majority of these current problems.
According to testimony to the board, the formulations pending approval only have a lowered volatility level. They do not differ regarding drift. According to weed scientists with the University of Arkansas, drift (physical movement of the chemical caused by wind) causes approximately 80 percent of dicamba damage.
“The chemical behaved this season the same way it would behave if it was approved,” Baldwin said. “These applications provided a real world look at what will happen and actually on a bigger scale if this technology goes forward as it currently exists.”
According to Richard, Monsanto’s chemical label pending before the EPA has application requirements like concentrated nozzles and application timeframes to address or reduce drift issues.
Some members of the State Plant Board complained that Monsanto has not made the chemical available for researchers at the University of Arkansas to conduct field testing to determine drift and volatility issues.
According to Richard, third-party research data was submitted to the EPA but it and the chemical formulations were not readily made available to outside researches for review and testing due to the company wanting to protect proprietary information. At some point, Richards said, some portions of the data might be made available.
Baldwin told the committee his work out in the field reviewing apparent dicamba damage has also shown that other broad-leaf plants, like trees and ornamentals, were also showing signs of dicamba exposure. While the plants hadn’t been killed, he did acknowledge that the damage was evident.
“This could easily get outside of agriculture,” Baldwin warned the committee. “And that would be a game changer.”
Cost Outweighs Consequences
“They don’t care unless they have a fine so damn bad, it hurts,” one member of board said during the pesticide meeting.
By state law, the maximum penalty the State Plant Board can issue to a farmer for off-label use is a thousand bucks per offense. Everyone in the meeting agreed that it clearly isn’t enough.
“It’s kind of a joke but it’s very serious. It’s been speculated that a producer that is faced with that situation of losing crop or not losing a crop would say, ‘Come to my farm, and I’ll write you a check for a thousand dollars before I spray, because I feel like i have to spray to save my crop’,” State Plant Board Director Terry Walker said. “They stand to gain a lot more personally, financially, by saving the crop as opposed to paying the fine.”
The State Plant Board created a civil penalty working committee this year, which suggested the law be altered to increase the maximum penalty allowance to $10,000 to increase the likelihood farmers and applicators would follow the regulations.
That change, though would require legislative action, then the State Plant Board would have to determine how the $10,000 would figure into its penalty matrix. That requires public hearings and input from the public. It’s a process that won’t help farmers right now.
“If you just roll them [new technologies] out there and say here they are, use them like any other pesticide, you’re going to have the biggest train wreck agriculture has ever seen,” Baldwin warned the committee.
According to Storey, there’s no way for his family to know right now what the cost of the damage to the crops will be. Research from the University of Arkansas has shown that damage can vary from 5 to 40 percent reductions in crop yields, depending on the stage of growth the plant is in when the chemical is applied.
“When you’re dealing with a man’s livelihood it hurts,” Storey said.
The State Plant Board is encouraging affected farmers to make formal complaints of dicamba damage to the State Plant Board so its investigators can get an accurate count of how many acres are being damaged across the state. You can contact the agency by calling (501) 225-1598.
Cruel Twist: Pigweed Resistance to Dicamba Predicted
Even as some farmers turn to illegal use of the chemical dicamba to control pigweed in their fields without an approved label, weed scientists at the University of Arkansas speculate resistance to the chemical could come in just a few generations as pigweed reproduce.
In a greenhouse test, one researcher applied current formulations to pigweed, and recovered the seed set by the sprayed plants. Within three generations, the pigweed offspring began showing resistance to the dicamba chemical, which is likely to occur in the fields under widespread use.
If that becomes the case, farmers may have no choice but to turn to alternative crops that are less prone to pigweed and can withstand other technologies for control like rice, corn and sorghum.
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