A version of this blog was first published by MOSES in their Organic Broadcaster newsletter.
Each year since Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant Xtend seeds have hit the market, farmers and rural communities have braced for record levels of pesticide drift. Even with this year’s late start to planting season, 2019 may see the highest number of dicamba drift incidents yet.
Long before Xtendimax was approved, dicamba was well-known as a particularly volatile chemical - it simply does not stay where it is put, no matter how it is applied. Early advocates warned of the damage this herbicide can and would do to off-target organisms.
Bayer, however, refuses to accept that its new star pesticide is a problem. Instead, the company is taking a page out of the “deny, deny, deny” corporate playbook, while blaming applicators for applying the product incorrectly.
From its inception, the Xtend crop system was bound to be a divisive disaster for all kinds of farmers. Herbicide resistance is just another instance of Monsanto (now Bayer) promising a short-sighted “solution” to a problem of its own creation. While farmers who don’t use the Xtend system are hit with dicamba drift, crop damage, and yield loss, Bayer is reaping the financial gains of an increase in acreage planted to dicamba-resistant soybeans.
This year’s ongoing crisis
So far, the state Department of Agriculture of Illinois has received 590 dicamba drift reports, up from 330 last year. Indiana has had 140 dicamba drift reports, and in Arkansas, nearly 200 dicamba injury cases have been reported. Though these numbers are high, especially given the late planting season, we also know that pesticide drift is vastly underreported.
Overall, Xtend crop planting has increased from 25 million acres in 2017, then doubling to 50 million in 2018, and estimated to reach 60 million acres in 2019. Some soybean farmers who were themselves reluctant to buy into the Xtend system, were compelled simply as a measure to protect their own bean fields from drift damage. With more dicamba-resistant soy in the fields, we may see a decrease in the number of soybean acres damaged by drift.
And this year more than ever, we’re hearing from state forest services and environmental groups that dicamba is taking a serious toll on trees, posing further threats to pollinators, birds, and other beneficial organisms that rely on those plants for food or habitat.
EPA, USDA inaction & the work ahead
Meanwhile, our federal regulatory agencies failed to prevent this disaster from the start. Our US Department of Agriculture swiftly approved the genetically engineered Xtend seeds in 2015, ruling on the narrow basis that the seeds themselves posed no “pest risk” to other plants. Soon thereafter, in 2016, EPA approved use of Xtendimax on these seeds, while steadfastly ignoring evidence that dicamba is highly toxic to conventional soybeans, fruits, vegetables, trees and many other broadleaf plants.
The willful refusal of both public agencies exposes the coordination in this flawed system is one that facilitates corporate profit at the expense of rural communities and their environments.
Dicamba drift has become so pervasive that plant breeders at public universities in Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Arkansas are witnessing dicamba damage in their own experimental soybean fields. In recent months, weed scientists have reported new evidence of dicamba-resistant weed populations in Tennessee and Kansas, as researchers have been predicting for years.
In response to our public agencies’ failure to defend the public interest, PAN filed a lawsuit against the EPA in 2017, challenging the EPA’s decision to deregulate Xtendimax. Our lawsuit explains how the EPA knew of dicamba’s potential to drift and damage sensitive crops, yet — at Monsanto’s request — approved the pesticide anyway, without establishing measures that would prevent those harms.
The good news is, despite a lack of EPA leadership, action is possible at the state level. Illinois and Arkansas have the most robust regulations of dicamba so far - with limits on when dicamba can be sprayed, and increased buffer zones for certain sensitive sites. Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota amongst several other states have implemented a cutoff date for Xtendimax. It should be noted, however, that even these additional actions did not prevent disastrous levels of drift in 2019.
We can support a transition to drift-free, ecological farming by calling on our local and state legislators to establish policies, programs and incentives to help farmers diversify their farming operations and get off the pesticide treadmill.
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