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.

The War On Weeds

So, let’s talk farming. I ran into this article about weed control over at Agweb and it’s actually pretty good so go take a peek at it if you have the time.

Differentiate fact and fiction as you plan your weed control strategy. Source: Myth-Busting Weed and Herbicide Rumors | Agweb.com

Now, the reason this article has popped up (and I’m sure you will see others in the ag press similar to this in the future) is that there are a few new GM crops coming on-line now, modified to work with a couple of new blends of herbicides in an effort to deal with increasing weed resistance to glycophase. The herbicides aren’t really new, though. They are simply blends of previously existing herbicides with glycophase. They incorporate either 2,4-D or dicamba, both of which have been around for decades already. The only thing new about the system is the GM crops that have been engineered to tolerate 2,4-D and/or dicamba.

And they aren’t going to work any better than glycophase alone did. At least not in the long run. Sooner or later weeds will eventually develop resistance to these new blends as well, and we’ll be right back where we are now. In fact, there is already resistance to both of those herbicides “out in the wild” so to speak, because both have been in use for some time.

We have allowed ourselves to become dependent upon a system of weed control that we know is eventually going to fail. So, if we already know that these reformulated mixes are going to eventually fail, why are we bothering with them at at all?

Part of the reason this isn’t going to change any time soon is that over the last few decades we have adopted almost across the board farming techniques that make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to change.

 

How did we do it in the “good old days”? Well, like this:

screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-11-58-31-am

Oliver 70 with cultivator attachment

Now, if this text editor has managed to put the image in the right place, that is an old Oliver 70 with it’s optional corn cultivator rig. I used to drive one of those when I was a kid. For hours. And hours. And hours. And hours. And hours. And.. Well, you get the idea.

It was boring, tedious, took huge amounts of time, huge amounts of fuel. And with how expensive fuel is these days, how expensive labor is, if you can even find labor, how time consuming it is… Well, it isn’t surprising that the agricultural industry has always been looking for something, anything, to try to eliminate weeds that doesn’t involve so much time, labor and expense.

But some alternative to this never ending cycle of herbicide failures is going to have to be found. We’re running out of options. No matter what kind of chemical intervention we may come up with, sooner or later nature will figure out a loophole to work around it because that’s just how nature works.

 

I wish I could tell you that there is a solution to this, but there isn’t. People are experimenting, yes. But so far all of the efforts I’ve seen in trying to get out of this dependency on herbicides have involved techniques that simply can’t be scaled up. I’ve seen flame throwers to burn weeds, steamers to steam weeds, “cookers” that scoop up soil and literally cook it to kill weed seeds… All of them are tedious, time consuming, and worst of all, very energy hungry.

There are some new robotics and AI technologies that are looking promising. I suspect that may be one possible solution; machines that do the cultivation for you using cameras, LIDAR, GPS to guide them. Even systems that can identify weeds by sight and mechanically remove them, leaving the desired plants alone.

But those are years away, maybe decades. But who knows? Maybe there is some kind of “magic bullet” out there. Ah, well, no, there isn’t, but we keep looking for one, don’t we?