Farmers Incentivized With Cash to Spray New Poison
It was about one year ago in November 2016 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved Monsanto's weed killer, XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology, a dicamba variety that is supposedly less prone to vaporization and drift, designed for use with genetically engineered (GE) dicamba-resistant seeds. The chemical was supposed to solve earlier problems caused by Monsanto's dicamba-resistant crops, which were released before they received approval for the less drift-prone herbicide.
As a result, illegal dicamba formulations were used, and the resulting dicamba drift caused significant damage to cropland across the U.S. The newer dicamba, however, did not prove to be the panacea that Monsanto had promised, and by November 2017, an estimated 3.6 million acres across the U.S. had been damaged by dicamba drift,1 as had trees in Iowa, Illinois and Tennessee.
Numerous states launched measures to prohibit dicamba sprayings, farmers suffered financial losses and, in some cases, neighboring farmers turned against one another as crops were damaged by the drifting chemical.
Now, with the EPA continuing to allow the use of dicamba on Monsanto's dicamba-tolerant crops, albeit with some restrictions, some farmers feel they're being forced to buy the GE seeds, just so they can survive their neighbors' chemical sprays.2 But Monsanto has another trick up its sleeve to encourage the use of its controversial and damaging weed killer. It's going so far as to pay farmers to spray it on their fields.
Monsanto to Pay Farmers to Spray Dicamba on Their GE Crops
It's expected that, as a result of the EPA's green light, planting of dicamba-tolerant soy will double in 2018, reaching about 40 million acres in the U.S.3 While Monsanto was thrilled about the news, stating, "We're very excited about it," the EPA has added new restrictions to dicamba usage, making it more cumbersome for farmers.
For instance, special training will be required to apply the herbicide, and its application will be prohibited when wind speeds are greater than 10 mph. Farmers will be asked to assess the risk that spraying could have on nearby crops, as well.
In light of the increased restrictions on its usage, Monsanto has decided to offer cash back to farmers who purchase XtendiMax with VaporGrip. The chemical typically costs farmers about $11 per acre, but Monsanto will give farmers $6 cash back when they use it on their dicama-tolerant Xtend soybeans. "Weed specialists say the restrictions make the chemical more costly and inconvenient to apply, but Monsanto's incentive could help convince farmers to use it anyway," Reuters reported.4
Indeed, not only will the cash-back offer encourage more farmers to purchase XtendiMax with VaporGrip but also Monsanto's GE seeds to go along with it. At the same time, it will reduce the likelihood of farmers turning to one of Monsanto's competitors, as both BASF SE and DowDuPont sell dicamba-based herbicides as well.
The shrewd marketing decision will likely amount to an economic windfall for Monsanto and a major blow to the environment. In 2017, about 4 percent of the 90 million acres of soybeans planted in the U.S. had signs of damage due to dicamba.5
US States Increasingly Restrict Dicamba Use
According to an EPA meeting that took place in November 2017 — the Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee Meeting — the EPA first started receiving reports of significant crop damage resulting from dicamba drift in May and June 2017. Cases were first reported in the Missouri Bootheel (the southeasternmost part of the state) but, the EPA reported, "As the season progressed, reports of soybean damage spread across southern states and northern [Missouri], into the Midwest and Dakotas."6
As of October 15, 2017, 2,708 dicamba-related crop injury investigations had been reported, affecting primarily soybeans but also tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, vineyards, pumpkins, vegetables, trees and shrubs and residential gardens.
The dicamba damage may actually be even more widespread than this, however, according to Reuben Baris, the EPA's acting branch chief in the Office of Pesticide Programs, who stated that most incidents went unreported and the actual number of dicamba-related crop injury incidents could be five times higher than what was reported.7
The EPA plans to monitor the success of their new restrictions to determine whether dicamba usage on dicamba-tolerant soy (and cotton) will be allowed beyond the 2018 growing season. A number of states aren't waiting to find out, however, and have already implemented restrictions.
Arkansas, where the largest number of incidents were filed (nearly 1,000) has voted to ban most dicamba spraying in the state in 2018 (although it still hasn't been finalized), while Minnesota is also considering enacting restrictions. North Dakota will prohibit dicamba use after June 30, 2018, as well as when temperatures rise beyond 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Missouri also plans to ban dicamba spraying in 10 counties after June 1, 2018, and across the state after July 15, 2018.8
Dicamba Drift Could Destroy Wildflowers, Harming Bees and Other Pollinators
The widespread reports of dicamba damage are alarming not only for farmers concerned about their crops. There is also concern that it could seriously impact bees and other pollinators in the area. If nearly all farmers in any given area plant dicamba-resistant crops, NPR reported:9
"[T]he resulting free-fire zone for dicamba could be bad news for other vegetation, such as wildflowers and trees. The wider ecological impact of dicamba drift received little attention at first. Richard Coy, whose family-run company manages 13,000 beehives in Arkansas, Mississippi and Missouri, was one of the few people who noticed it. 'If I were not a beekeeper, I would pay no attention to the vegetation in the ditches and the fence rows,' he says. But his bees feed on that vegetation."
Coy has noticed that dicamba drift has stopped vegetation from blooming, which means bees and other pollinators have access to less pollen. Honey production in regions where dicamba is sprayed is down about one-third, and Coy expects to have to move his beehives if dicamba spraying continues, he told NPR.10
According to the National Pesticide Information Center, which is a cooperative between Oregon State University and the EPA, "Dicamba's toxicity to honey bees ranges from moderately toxic to practically nontoxic, based on U.S. EPA values."11
However, even if that is true, the damage, as Coy noted, may be due to its drift affecting nontarget plants. In 2016, a study by researchers at Penn State and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture revealed that when dicamba drifts onto plants growing next to agricultural crops, it leads to significant delays in flowering and reduced flowering.
As a result, fewer honeybees visited the area. The researchers concluded that dicamba could be devastating to pollinators, writing in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry:12
"Because plants exposed to sublethal levels of dicamba may produce fewer floral resources and be less frequently visited by pollinators, use of dicamba or other synthetic-auxin herbicides with widespread planting of herbicide-resistant crops will need to be carefully stewarded to prevent potential disturbances of plant and beneficial insect communities in agricultural landscapes."
Monsanto, BASF Facing Increasing Litigation Over Dicamba Damage
Monsanto and BASF are facing a growing number of lawsuits claiming their dicamba herbicides damaged crops. The cases are unique in that the farmers with damaged crops typically did not buy or use the chemical but, rather, were victims of drift damage. Already, Monsanto has blamed crop damage on misapplication and has attempted to skirt the blame for oak-tree damage by blaming other pesticides, according to internal company emails.13
Meanwhile, farmers spraying dicamba claim they used the chemical according to label instructions and will not accept responsibility for neighboring damage. The situation is leading to "strained relationships in the region," Modern Farmer reported, "especially in light of the fact that insurance companies won't compensate farmers for losses caused by wrongful or 'off label' herbicide applications due to drift."14
For many, a lawsuit is their only recourse. The first case was filed in 2016 by Bader Farms in Missouri, which claims the orchard suffered damage to 30,000 trees and lost millions of dollars due to dicamba drift. Again, Monsanto has attempted to shift the blame, with Scott Partridge, vice president of global strategy, stating, "In Bader's case, the product that caused him damage wasn't Xtendimax with VaporGrip technology, it was someone else's herbicide.
The product that was applied and moved, according to Bader, belonged to someone else."15 Numerous additional lawsuits have since been filed from farmers spanning at least 10 states. One of the latest suits, filed in July 2017, includes not only claims of drift damage but also alleges BASF, DuPont and Monsanto are engaging in antitrust activity by releasing their dicamba herbicides and dicamba-tolerant seeds, which forces farmers to purchase the latter just to avoid damage.
Attorney Paul Lesko told AgWeb, "We're bringing claims of product liability because farmers are in a quandary. They want to plant seeds of their choice, but due to damage potential, have to consider buying dicamba-tolerant soybeans from a defensive position."16
Spraying More Pesticides on Crops Is Not the Solution
Worldwide, an estimated 7.7 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops each year, and that number is steadily increasing.17 Yet, the problems are becoming too big to ignore. Glyphosate-resistant superweeds like pigweed are now driving farmers to seek out dicamba-resistant crops, but dicamba-resistant weeds have already sprouted in Kansas and Nebraska, raising serious doubts that piling more pesticides on crops will help farmers, or the environment, in the long run.
In fact, in one greenhouse study of the weed Palmer amaranth, Jason Norsworthy, a weed scientist with the University of Arkansas, was able to induce dicamba resistance in just three generations by applying dicamba at sublethal doses to the first two generations. "Even though this resistance was recorded in an artificial environment, the research confirms herbicide resistance can develop in just three years if the same weed population is exposed to sublethal chemical doses," Farm Journal reported.18
What many people don't realize is that research shows 59 percent of farmers could cut pesticide usage by 42 percent without harming their production. Forty percent of these farms would even improve their production as a result.19 Crop rotation, mechanical weeding, planting of cover crops and other nonchemical forms of pest control were mentioned as ways that farmers could successfully lessen pesticide use.
The major barrier at this time appears to be education. Fortunately, some farmers are moving toward regenerative, soil-friendly and organic agriculture anyway, with promising results. In fact, research published in Nature Communications suggests that converting conventional cropland to organic reduces pesticide usage and, when combined with other changes like cutting food waste and cutting back on CAFO meat, "can contribute to feeding more than 9 billion people in 2050, and do so sustainably."20
As for Monsanto's push to incentivize the use of more harmful chemicals to farmers by offering cash back, it's not the first time they've done so. In 2010, Monsanto offered farmers $6 cash back per acre if they sprayed their Roundup Ready crops with at least two other herbicides aside from Roundup, which was a failed attempt to stave off glyphosate-resistant weeds.21
If this scenario is allowed to continue repeating, we'll see a never-ending cycle of increased herbicide usage to replace those that have lost effectiveness, with untold devastation to human health and the environment. For now, you can voice your opinion about the usage of toxic dicamba and related GE crops by supporting organic, regenerative farmers — the ones who are opting out of the madness and choosing to grow optimally nutritious food while nurturing soil health and the overall environment instead.