Last fall, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rubberstamped Monsanto’s newest formulation of the herbicide dicamba for use on the corporation’s genetically engineered (GE), dicamba-resistant soybean and cotton seeds. Expecting that this approval will lead to a dramatic increase in use of the herbicide dicamba, PAN and partners just filed a federal lawsuit challenging the agency's decision to risk farmer livelihoods, community health and the environment.
The original version of dicamba, which is still on the market, has been around for over 45 years and is responsible for the third highest number of drift-related crop damage incidents in the U.S. Monsanto claims that its new formulation, ”XtendiMax," is less likely to drift from the fields where it's applied — although there is no guarantee that this newer, more expensive formulation will be used in place of the older, cheaper option.
Last season, the first planting of Monsanto's new GE seeds resulted in unprecedented drift damage from dicamba across the country. Even before EPA had approved the new formulation of dicamba, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allowed Monsanto’s corresponding “Xtend” dicamba-resistant soybean seeds onto the market in 2015. It was technically illegal to apply the old formulation of the herbicide on the new GE seeds, but growers did it anyway — looking for the increased yields Monsanto promised with the Xtend seed line.
Across 10 states, farmers reported that the increased dicamba spray caused widespread damage to thousands of acres of neighboring non-GE crops. And last fall, a dispute between an Arkansas farmer and a Missouri farmer even resulted in a fatal shooting.
In addition to crop damage and impacts on rural communities, conservationists are deeply concerned about dicamba drift damaging biodiversity, as the herbicide threatens plants that provide nectar for pollinators and habitat for animals. Additionally, it is frequently detected in surface water.
A short-sighted tool
Monsanto’s new, supposedly less drift-prone version of dicamba is not likely to be an effective tool in the long run. We know from watching the use of glyphosate — the main ingredient in Monsanto’s RoundUp — that the strategy of stacking seeds with herbicide resistance is deeply flawed and hard to control. Thanks to widespread planting of RoundUp Ready seeds, an epidemic of glyphosate-resistant "superweeds" now plagues farmers. Weeds develop herbicide resistance quickly.
Jason Norsworthy, a weed expert at the University of Arkansas, recently conducted a study to test how quickly pigweed — the main weed of concern in soybean fields — develops resistance to dicamba. He found that after just three generations of heavy dicamba exposure, pigweeds were no longer susceptible to the herbicide. With increased use of dicamba on Monsanto’s GE crops, a new generation of superweeds is just around the corner.
Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant soybean and cotton crops are also engineered to withstand applications of glyphosate, which means that this recent approval of XtendiMax will exacerbate the current overuse of that chemical as well. Dicamba is linked to increased rates of cancer in farmers and birth defects, while glyphosate was recently classified as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization.
Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, PhD, PAN senior scientist said:
Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant crop system will drive up sales of this outdated pesticide, spur more superweeds and damage vulnerable crops. Monsanto’s solution is expensive, inadequate, and reckless. If Trump’s administration wants to serve farmers, it will invest in healthy, long-lasting solutions to farmers’ needs, not pander to corporate greed.”
Corporate interest v. public interest
Dicamba is not the only outdated, clearly harmful chemical to get a green light from EPA this winter.
In an 11th hour decision under the Obama Administration, the agency expanded use of Dow’s controversial herbicide cocktail Enlist Duo — a combination of 2,4-D and glyphosate — for application on the corporation's corresponding GE corn and soy. While previously only approved in a select number of states, the January announcement extended use on these crops to an additional 19 states, while also adding approval of use for Dow’s GE cotton.
Since originally being used as an ingredient in Agent Orange, scientists have collected extensive research on 2,4-D’s numerous health impacts — including links to multiple cancers, interference with fetal and child development, and reduced fertility.
Because of the clear body of science showing health harms, and 2,4-D’s propensity to drift from fields to nearby communities, public outcry has been strong and steady since Dow first petitioned EPA to approve its Enlist Duo formulation.
In response to this, Ishii-Eiteman said:
EPA’s decision to expand use of Enlist Duo is deeply disappointing — and the wrong move. In a misguided attempt to address the superweed crisis created by indiscriminate use of glyphosate on Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready crops, the agency is again failing America’s farmers and rural communities.”
While there is still some uncertainty about what Trump’s pick for EPA head, Scott Pruitt, has in store for the agency, we anticipate that his influence will accelerate de-regulation and deepen the practice of favoring corporate interests. PAN has long called on EPA to more effectively protect public health and well-being from harmful pesticides. While imperfect, we are clear that a strong public agency “to protect human health and the environment” is more critical than ever. We will continue to fight for scientific integrity and government accountability.