Small Farmer Commentary – The pesticide treadmill… dicamba and then what?
By Mary Fund
On top of the usual speculation about drought and rain, late frosts and low prices, one of the big things on farmers’ minds as thoughts turn to spring planning and planting, is the dicamba question. Dicamba is industry’s silver bullet solution to the decreasing effectiveness of their wonder herbicide glyphosate (trademark Round up) and the emergence of super weeds that evolved after broad routine use year after year of herbicide tolerant (HT) resistant crops. (Kansas has at least 13 different weed species resistant to five different herbicide treatments; nationally it is 160.)
But dicamba has a problem. It has a strong tendency to drift onto non-target crops damaging if not killing them.
Claiming they had solved the drift or volatility problem with a reformulation of the old dicamba, industry introduced the new HT soybean and cotton seed. Unfortunately they released the HT seed in 2016 before EPA approved the new formulation, and some farmers used the old dicamba. Lawsuits and even violence broke out among farmers whose non-HT soybeans were ruined. In 2017, the reformulated lower-volatility dicamba was released. But there was still a problem.
Last summer and fall, damage reports flooded departments of agriculture and extension offices from major soy producing areas across the southeast and parts of the Midwest, including Kansas, claiming dicamba drift. One reason dicamba was replaced by glyphosate was its tendency to volatize and drift to non-target crops. Some crops such as sensitive specialty crops like vegetables, grapevines, and orchards are especially vulnerable, not to mention other trees and ornamentals. Dicamba sprayed on dicamba resistant soybeans is fine, but non-resistant soybeans including public and non-GMO varieties are highly vulnerable. By summer’s end, University of Missouri researchers calculated there were 3.6 million acres of non-resistant soybeans that were damaged or killed by drifting dicamba, and the industry had a huge problem.
As a solution to a problem industry claimed would never happen, industry created the new HT crops resistant to stronger herbicides, except they are not new, but a resurrection of older stronger herbicides, namely dicamba and 2,4D, the very herbicides that they were trying to get away from because of their environmental and suspected or known human health impacts.
Industry promises their new formulation solves the drift problem. But if 2017 was any indication, then the 2018 growing season will be worse as more acres come under this new technology. Because of the flood of complaints, several states took action to limit or ban the use of the new dicamba HT crops. In October last year, EPA, with heavy influence from Monsanto, BSF and Dow, decided new label requirements would be sufficient to address the problems —as long as farmers and applicators follow the label.
But opponents and those harmed argue that past experience shows that not all applicators are willing, able or even concerned about following label directions and restrictions. Furthermore they argue “dicamba is uncontrollable with its tendency to volatize and move into areas where it was not meant to go.”
According to University of Arkansas researchers, the rate of volatility might be different in the initial 24 hours following application of the new formulation, but over a few days the total amount of volatility was really not different that the old formulations. Apparently, the new formulation only alters the timing of the volatization, and changes in weather conditions can trigger movement days after initial spraying and cause damages miles away.
The new label rules are an improvement. They classify dicamba as a “restricted use” herbicide requiring that applicators must be certified; and require that applicators/farmers must receive special training) Kansas State University Extension has announced trainings in Kansas). Applicators/farmers must also maintain detailed records of atmospheric conditions; and that applications are to be made only when wind speeds are below 10 mph (down from 15 mph). Proximity to sensitive crops, weed size and rainfall patterns are all addressed.
Again those harmed and opposing dicamba use argue that the massive crop damage of 2017 proves that the new low-volatility formulations do not perform as advertised.
The real problem here is not the label. It is not even the super weeds. It is the continued pursuit of the same solution that got us here in the first place. Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.”
Weed resistance happened faster than scientists predicted—and it was predicted. What happens when dicamba resistant weeds appear? Where does this treadmill take us? A related question I have not addressed here is the increasing evidence that glyphosate (dicamba’s predecessor and still in heavy use) not only creates weed resistance but damages or kills soil microbes essential to a healthy soil. This only adds to the questions about a strategy that leans heavily on silver bullet solutions.
Farmers face a difficult immediate challenge—either they buy the new seed or run the risk of being damaged by a neighbor’s use of dicamba on their HT resistant crop. Farmers of specialty crops or non-GMO soybeans do not even have that option. The longer term question is do we continue to accept industry’s strategy and approach? Or do we stand up and maintain real autonomy in decision making options, and say no the technology, and find a different approach?
Many farmers in Kansas have embraced soil health as essential to their success. They are finding value in cover crop mixes and more complex crop rotations, and discovering the magic of diversity. Such diversity requires a reduction in pesticide use if not elimination.
The dicamba question raises serious dilemmas on several fronts. The emerging specialty crop sector in Kansas and around the country is threatened, at a time when we should be encouraging greater local and regional production of fruits and vegetables for food security purposes and for a healthier food system. We should be encouraging farming practices that encourage healthy soil—regenerative, sustainable practices that protect the environment and human health. And we should be encouraging farmer autonomy—this too is critical for our food future.
The Kansas legislature will soon be examining the state’s noxious weed law. (See page ). While noxious weeds are a different problem than routine pesticide use in crop production, the same issues surrounding dicamba and HT crops about efficacy, management, and impact on the overall environment and public health can be found. Instead of just looking at the noxious weed law, we should look at state pesticide law overall.
Whether aimed at noxious weeds or the systemic problems with silver bullet chemicals, we need to explore solutions that place greater emphasis on an integrated approach that relies on more cultural controls (crop rotations), biological controls (reliance on natural enemies), and mechanical controls (burning, tilling, mulching, burning, cover crops, etc.). Such an approach would reduce the use of chemicals and preserve their efficacy if we choose to use them. We need to abandon the pesticide treadmill and the thinking that got us here in the first place.