Reclaiming the future of food and farming

Monsanto’s dicamba crisis: guilty as charged

Marcia Ishii's picture
Bayer dicamba spray

It’s mid-July and temperatures are soaring. So are the numbers of dicamba drift-related crop injuries sweeping across rural America. Also rising: the outrage of farmers, gardeners and rural residents, as they watch this unnecessary chemical debacle unfold, once again. Watching unperturbed from the sidelines: Monsanto (recently acquired by Bayer) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Chemical trespass

A week ago I sat down to pull together the latest numbers of dicamba drift. But every time I turned on my computer, the numbers had grown, along with more stories in the farm press of crop damage, withered gardens, dying trees, and lost income.

Earlier this month, my co-worker took a call from a woman in Monsanto’s home state of Missouri, who said that dicamba had drifted on and destroyed her foster mother's garden. She had been planning to can the garden’s produce for the winter months. When she called the Missouri department of agriculture to report the incident, she was told the department does not have the resources to respond and her report went unrecorded.

Increasingly, we are hearing both conventional and organic farmers like Rob Faux wonder how long they can continue farming under the continued onslaught of chemical drift.

Dicamba drift by the numbers

Latest estimates by university weed scientists indicate over one million acres of dicamba-injured soybeans as of July 15, a near tripling of the 383,000 acres reported a month ago. State departments of agriculture report they are currently investigating over 600 cases of dicamba-related crop injury, up from 154 cases in June. The crisis is so widespread that the Association of American Pesticide Control Officials has set up a dicamba webpage, providing state-by-state updates.   

In Arkansas, ground zero in the 2017 dicamba crisis, fewer acres of soybeans have been damaged so far this year. That state took the bold farmer-protective decision last year of disallowing dicamba applications from April 16th-October 31st, holding firm despite Monsanto’s efforts to block the state’s action. Still, damage to trees and home gardens and risks to commercial vegetable production are up, and states such as Iowa, North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio are already recording more complaints than this time last year.

These numbers give us at best a gross underestimate of the extent of the pesticide drift crisis impacting American agriculture today – many farmers and rural residents don’t report drift damage, explaining that the authorities won’t do anything and they’ll never recoup their losses anyway.

Profits over people

It’s not just the numbers and stories—as alarming as they are— that are the problem. The cupped leaves of dying plants are the more visible sign of a deeper disease that has corporate power, corrupt public agencies and lack of integrity in our public institutions at its roots.

Weed scientists in some states have been muzzled by their administrators or have had their jobs threatened just for standing on sound science or trying to report the true situations in their states. Others are fearful of losing grant funds needed to support their programs. The price for that is we are losing our integrity and our industry.  
– Weed Science Society of America Fellow, Ford Baldwin PhD

What’s really wrong is this: the world’s biggest pesticide corporations have knowingly handcuffed many farmers to a technology that is steadily destroying other farmers’ crops and livelihoods, as well as vast acreages of plant life and ecosystems across the country. And no-one — neither the chemical manufacturers, nor the pesticide applicators, nor the crop insurance industry — is willing to take responsibility for the fall-out.

EPA, anyone home?

By now, one would hope that someone with federal oversight authority would step in. Clearly this is a national problem demanding decisive action.

EPA says the agency is “watching the situation closely.” Really? What more does it need to see?

EPA already has all the information necessary to do the right thing and cancel registration of all dicamba formulations currently registered for use on dicamba-resistant crops. Yet so far, the agency has preferred to simply follow Monsanto’s lead.  

Getting off the pesticide treadmill

Meanwhile, many other pesticides continue to drift and harm residents of rural communities. While dicamba should be addressed for its particular volatility and harm to crops and other plants, we also need better policies to stop pesticide drift from happening at all.

Getting off the pesticide treadmill means devoting meaningful resources to help farmers transition to ecologically-based pest management systems that do not rely on hazardous drift-prone pesticides. Growing numbers of farmers around the country are doing just that. But they can’t keep it up on their own, not with plumes of toxic chemicals drifting overhead.

Standing by and “watching the situation closely” is a pathetic response to a national crisis that is simply not acceptable. Our public agencies, land-grant universities and legislatures have a responsibility to help farmers transition off the pesticide treadmill, and ensure that those who have already invested in clean and healthy farming for the future can continue to do so for years to come.

Take Action

  1. Report pesticide drift!
  2. Join PAN in urging EPA to cancel registration of Monsanto’s dicamba herbicide this fall


Marcia Ishii
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Marcia Ishii's picture

Marcia Ishii is director of PAN’s Grassroots Science Program and a Senior Scientist with a background in insect ecology and pest management. Her campaign work focuses on supporting and strengthening agroecology movements and policies in the U.S. and globally, in addition to challenging corporate control of our food and seed systems. Follow @MarciaIshii