Dicamba – What’s The Problem?

Screen Shot 2017-06-24 at 7.58.59 AMIn the last Farm Catch Up I talked a bit about the herbicide dicamba and noted that Arkansas regulators had already banned Monsanto’s brand Xtendimax of herbicide blend that contained the product and were considering a ban on the other one that was approved for use with Monsanto’s Xtend line of seeds, Engenia. “Procedural irregularities” prevented the Arkansas State Plant Board from passing an emergency ban on June 20, but I should have waited a couple of days because on June 23 ASPB passed a 120 day emergency order banning in-crop use of dicamba.

Someone pointed out to me that a lot of my readers aren’t in the agriculture business and may not know what the whole problem is, and that it would be a good idea to give a better explanation of what’s going on and why this is so important to so many people. So here goes

Super Weeds

That’s where it all starts, of course: super weeds, the ones that have been developing resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in herbicides like RoundUp. Everyone knew that as soon as glyphosate and the GM crops developed to work with it were released, weeds would begin to evolve resistance to the herbicide. That’s just the way nature works. Guidelines for usage that would help to prevent this, or at least slow it down, were developed even before the products were released for general sale. But everyone knew it was just a matter of time before “super weeds” started to pop up and spread. The fact that the guidelines and safeguards were largely ignored didn’t help much, either.

So now we’re faced with glyphosate resistant weeds that are spreading all across the country. So a new magic bullet needed to be found, and they picked dicamba.

Dicamba has been around for a long time. It was first discovered back in 1942 and has been used to control brush, legumes and cacti. It was also used along fence lines and roads to control brush. Some formulations have been used for weed control on lawns, golf courses, etc. for decades as well. It was never used on crops because it was highly toxic to commercial crops.

Dicamba has some serious issues, not the least of which is it’s tendency to drift over large areas beyond the treatment area.

Monsanto decided that dicamba was an excellent solution to the problem of weeds that were resistant to glyphosate, and developed it’s Xtend soybean plant, which could tolerate both glyphosate and dicamba. It developed a new formulation containing both glyphosate and dicamba.

Monsanto developed what was supposed to be a complete system, it’s new GM soybean coupled with the new formulation of glyphosate and dicamba. The new formulation was supposed to cure the problems dicamba had with easy volatility and wide spread drifting. The company claimed that if used according to its guidelines and with the proper equipment, the issues with the herbicide would be eliminated.

Well, there was one big problem right off the bat. Monsanto started to sell the GM seed before the government had approved the use of it’s new herbicide blend. This led some farmers to dump dicamba on their fields even though the government had not yet approved any form of dicamba for use on crops. Without the special low volatility formulation and without using the proper equipment, dicamba spread widely, damaging or destroying tens of thousands of acres of non-Xtend soybeans, it is claimed. Oh, and somebody got shot and killed over it, too. A heated argument between farmers over alleged damage to crops ended up with someone getting killed.

Well, the new formulation of herbicide is now approved, and things don’t seem to be doing much better for either Monsanto or the other company that makes the new herbicide. There are reports popping up all over the place that the new herbicide, even when used exactly according to the recommendations, is drifting all over the place. In one case it’s alleged that it drifted more than a mile and a half. In Arkansas alone there have been around 250 reports of damage caused by herbicide drift.

As noted at the beginning of this, Arkansas has already instituted a ban on Monsanto’s formula, and the government is now issuing an outright ban on all dicamba use on cropland because of all the damage reports.

The whole thing is a real mess at the moment. Lots of finger pointing, lots of accusations, even conspiracy theories. I heard one farmer claim that the drift problem is deliberate. He claims that the company knew this was going to happen, wanted it to happen, because it would force farmers to buy the GM seed from the company because even if you didn’t use the new herbicide, drift from neighboring farms that did would wipe out your crop unless you used their beans.

I haven’t seen reports from other states about this situation. If I do I’ll pass them along. Right now it’s a huge mess and the only people who are going to be profiting from any of this seems to be the lawyers.

Dicamba

Let’s talk about herbicides. It’s almost the time of year when we’ll start seeing the spraying equipment hitting the fields around here, so let’s talk about herbicides, one in particular called dicamba. And if you read the agriculture press, you’ll be seeing articles like this one that warn of the pitfalls of using this old-but-new-again herbicide:  Caution Lights Ahead For Dicamba Use | Ag Professional. (And before you ask, yes, there are already dicamba resistant weeds out there and one experiment showed it took one type of weed only three generations to develop resistance to the herbicide. <read that article here>)

Now I should point out that dicamba has been around for a long time. It was developed back in the late 1950s and has been on the market ever since. It’s used to control broadleaf weeds and brush. What’s new about it is that Monsanto has developed a line of dicamba resistant crops such as soybeans which can tolerate the herbicide. With these crops being resistant to both glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUP, and dicamba, the hope is that this double dose of herbicide will help to control weeds that are resistant to glyphosate alone.

But there are, as always, problems.

The first of these is dicamba itself. It volatilizes easily, going into vapor, which then moves over large areas. It also is subject to drift while spraying. The droplets from the sprayers can drift over large areas as well. This combination of easy volatility and tendency to drift makes it troublesome to work with because it can spread over large areas, killing or damaging plants well outside of the area being treated. In order for dicamba to be used in the way Monsanto wanted, special blends and compounds had to be created to help prevent the easy volatility and drift of the product so it wouldn’t contaminate adjacent fields.

Monsanto decided to sell its Xtend seeds before the herbicide blend it was designed to work with was approved by the government. The result was that farmers who should have known better planted the seed, and then used dicamba blends that were not approved for use, and tens of thousands of acres (some estimates are in the hundreds of thousands of acres) of crops were damaged or killed by the drift from the herbicide. There are currently lawsuits going on against Monsanto claiming the company is responsible because it released the Xtend seed before the accompanying herbicide blend was available, and Monsanto should have known that some farmers would use dicamba illegally.

The new legal blend is now available, but even that isn’t going to solve the problem. There are a whole host of restrictions, requirements and warnings adorning the labels of the new herbicide. It can only be used with a particular type of sprayer nozzle, has to be applied no more than X inches above the weeds, has to be used at a certain point in the weeds’ life span, the wind can be no more than 10-15 MPH… The list goes on and on. All of the warnings and requirements indicate that this new “safer” blend isn’t all that much safer than the original form of dicamba was.

And in the long run dicamba is going to end up being just as useless in controlling weeds as glyphosate is becoming because as that article I linked to at the beginning points out, weeds will quickly become immune to it as well.

I keep wondering how much longer we can keep this up, concocting ever more toxic and complex blends of herbicides to try to control weeds, when we know that it is, at best, a temporary fix and that the weeds will eventually become immune to even that.

Meanwhile over in France the government has been trying to push things in the other direction, trying to get agriculture away from the ever increasing reliance on herbicides and pesticides. France <story here> has set a goal of cutting the use of pesticides of various types by 50% over the next ten years through the use of alternative methods of pest and weed control. How successful the program has been is a bit questionable, but studies have indicated that farms could significantly cut their use of pesticides and herbicides without a loss of income. But it would require some significant changes in farming practices.

Can we get away from this apparently never ending cycle of herbicide/pesticide resistance? We’re going to find out and in the not too distant future because the current situation simply cannot continue indefinitely.

 

Who’s Fault Is It?

Farmers in 10 states can join a possible class action lawsuit against Monsanto over the illegal use of dicamba that damaged their crops because of tine introduction of the company’s Xtend line of GM crops that are immune to the herbicide. AgWeb has a story about it here if you want to take a peek.

Source: Farmers File Class Action Against Monsanto for Dicamba Drift Damage | Agweb.com

The situation is a bit complicated so let me explain what’s going on.

A lot of weeds are becoming resistant to RoundUp and its generic equivalents. Dicamba is an herbicide that has been in use for quite a while already to fight broadleaf weeds, but it wasn’t used in this type of application because it was also toxic to the crops until Monsanto came out with it’s Xtend line which is resistant to it as well as glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp. Monsanto’s plan was to market Xtend seeds along with a new herbicide that blended dicamba with glyphosate in order to deal with weeds that were resistant to glyphosate alone.

The problem comes in because Monsanto started selling the Xtend seed before the new herbicide blend was approved for use by the government.

This is an important point. Dicamba is nasty stuff to work with. It vaporizes very easily while it is being applied, and the vapors can drift for long distances even on a relatively calm day, killing or damaging plants in fields far beyond the field being sprayed. The new herbicide blend contained dicamba in a form that was not as volatile and was safer to use as long as it was applied correctly with the right equipment. The new blend would help to prevent the herbicide drifting.

Even though the new herbicide wasn’t available, Monsanto started selling Xtend seed anyway. And you can see what’s coming, can’t you?

That’s right; now that they had a dicamba resistant seed, some growers drenched their fields with regular dicamba, ignored the application warnings and restrictions, and ended up with herbicide drifting all over the place causing damage to crops in the adjacent fields of other farmers. I’ve heard estimates that the amount of damage caused by drift is as high as 200,000 acres.

Oh, at least one murder that I know of. Yeah. Seriously. They actually shot someone over herbicide drift.

So, as the headline asks, whose fault is it?

The suit claims it’s Monsanto’s fault. They should not have released the new seeds into the market until the new herbicide designed to go with it was ready to go as well. They should have known that some growers would abuse the system and use dicamba herbicides off-label and illegally as soon as they had their hot little hands on the new seeds.

Monsanto says wait just a minute, we didn’t spray the stuff. We warned them not to, and to wait until the new herbicide was ready to go. It’s their fault, not ours.

The other side counters that any rational person should have realized that if the seed was put on sale without the herbicide some growers would use the unapproved and dangerous form of the herbicide…

And so it goes around, and around, and around. This will probably be lurching through the court system for years…

So what is the answer to that question up there? Whose fault is it?

This is one of those situations where I think both sides have a valid point. As Monsanto claims, it did not do the spraying. It’s recommendations for use indicated that Xtend seeds were to be used only with approved herbicides and approved application techniques. Once it sold the seed, it has no control over what the growers do afterwards.

On the other hand, why put seed up for sale where the primary benefit of using it is to enable the use of a herbicide that was not yet legal to use? Monsanto knew there was no reason to buy the new seed unless the growers were going to make use of the seeds capability of withstanding dicamba…

What do I think about all of this? My issues with the whole thing are at a more fundamental level. I think we’ve become locked into methods of food production that are basically unsustainable over the long haul.

And we know that. We know that eventually herbicides are going to fail. They just are. We can’t keep up this endless cycle of having to develop new and ever more toxic herbicides as the old ones fail. It’s the same with insect control. The insect population eventually becomes resistant, and we have to start all over again. BT corn is a good example of this as the insects that are controlled by BT become resistant and begin to spread, and within a few more years we are going to have a root worm problem that was just as bad, if not worse, than it was before BT corn was introduced.


Side Note: I’m going to start trying to move away from talking about agriculture so much in the future. I’m not involved in the business any more, sold the farm a couple of years ago, so why do I still go babbling on and on and on about it when there are other things I’m interested in?

But then I’ve told myself that before and I keep coming back to it for some reason. Oh, well.

I’m going to try to push this onto other things I’m interested in; amateur radio and electronics, amateur astronomy, building furniture and fiddling with wood, photography…

This was never intended to be focused on a single topic in the first place, so I’m going to try to get back to that.