Posted in Food Safety on October 27, 2018
Farmers in Arkansas aren’t allowed to spray a weed killer called Dicamba. So says the Arkansas State Plant Board, which decides which chemicals and seeds are allowed on the state’s farms.
Dicamba is an herbicide that’s been around for some time. It induces certain species of plants, including many that are considered to be weeds, to grow faster than they can sustain. Eventually, the plant’s growth picks up to the point where it is starved for nutrients and withers away.
The plants that can effectively be killed using dicamba include many common weeds. Unfortunately, they also include soybeans, which in the midwest are big business. That was the case until scientists at Monsanto were able to make a key tweak; they inserted into the soybean genome a bit of DNA from an unassuming soil bacteria. That bacteria produces enzymes that deactivate dicamba, breaking it down into a much less toxic constituent.
By putting the DNA from the soil bacteria into their proprietary soybean seeds, Monsanto was able to sell farmers soybeans that could survive applications of dicamba. The plants wouldn’t be bothered by the chemical, and the undesired weeds would be killed off. In 2017, Arkansas farmers started spraying dicamba on fields that had been planted with the resistant seeds from Monsanto.
Unfortunately, there were unintended consequences. When the Arkansas summer grew hot, the dicamba that had been sprayed onto plants started to evaporate and drift, dispersing through the broader environment on the wind. The herbicide did what it was designed to do: it killed off broad leaf plants that it came into contact with.
Many of those plants, unfortunately, were located off of the farms where the dicamba had originally been applied. And many of those plants belonged to farmers who didn’t want to see them die. Tomatoes, melons, orchards, and unmodified soybeans were stunted and killed in collateral damage from the weedkiller. Millions of dollars of crops were lost, and farmers who had chosen not to use dicamba or the resistant soybeans felt that the pesticide had been imposed on them against their will.
In Arkansas, the problem of drifting dicamba fell into the lap of the Arkansas Plant Board. The plant board ended up taking a strong stance against dicamba; they banned spraying after the 15th of April, covering the entire growing season of soybeans. Effectively, they’d made spraying dicamba in Arkansas illegal.
Some farmers felt caught out. They’d already purchased their dicamba-resistant seeds from Monsanto at extra cost, a sunken investment that now couldn’t be recouped. They appealed to the courts, who exempted some farmers from the ban. When the case reached the state Supreme Court, however, they overturned the exemption, affirming the plant board’s decision. The risks associated with dicamba use to the crops of other farmers were simply too high. The crop wasn’t fit for use in the state of Arkansas. “Honestly, I don’t think anybody in the whole world dreamed the dicamba could create such an issue, bring so many farmers against farmers,” says Terry Fuller, a member of Arkansas’ state plant board, which regulates pesticides.
So said the supreme court and the plant board. But some Arkansas farmers remained unhappy with the ruling. They decided that fines and other enforcement actions were an acceptable risk when weighed against the prospect of complying with the ban.
So, they continued to spray their soybeans with dicamba. And, this summer, several of these outlaw farmers managed to again kill or damage many of their neighbor’s crops. Although complaints of collateral damage did fall sharply, hundreds of farmers reported that they’d been the victim of the herbicide drifting in on the wind from their more unscrupulous neighbors. Tad Nowlin, a farmer who farms land in the northeast corner of Arkansas and just across the state border in Missouri, agrees that dicamba is risky. “Personally, I don’t believe in spraying dicamba. I think it’s too dangerous to spray,” Nowlin stated in an interview. “I mean, anybody that says otherwise is dreaming.”
National Public Radio reported that the farm board responded to this development by looking for concrete evidence of illegal spraying; instead of stopping at the documentation of damaged plants, they took the extra step of sending investigators to test herbicide spraying rigs for dicamba residue.
They’ve found a few offenders through their testing, and will be fining them to the tune of thousands of dollars for failing to comply with the state’s pesticide regulations. Still, according to the investigation by NPR, those farmers run the cost-benefit numbers on spraying dicamba, and they’ve decided that it’s the best option for them, even with the fine.
“They told me that the decision to use dicamba comes down to economics,” the NPR report goes. “Some believe that Monsanto’s dicamba-tolerant seeds will produce a bigger harvest. One farmer told me that spraying dicamba is the only way to stay in business and that paying the fine is cheaper than fighting weeds any other way.”
Dicamba isn’t the first time that Monsanto has deployed against crops that have been genetically engineered to resist. They did the same thing with Roundup some years ago. Roundup ready soybeans and corn could survive the herbicide; that meant that farmers could apply it indiscriminately to keep their fields clean of pesky weeds.
Unfortunately, widespread application of Roundup had its own effects. Many of the plants that the herbicide was commonly deployed against grew resistant to it. That meant diminishing returns, and that there would be no one-stop shop for herbicides that farmers could turn to. More recently, Roundup has been embroiled in battles over whether the pesticide is carcinogenic.
Between the diminishing returns and the tarnished reputation, Roundup is seen less and less. Which is part of the reason that dicamba has been rolled out. As we’ve seen, however, dicamba has its own set of problems. Perhaps blanket applications of herbicides to crops that have been genetically engineered to resist is just another crude agricultural technique that we will in time outgrow for more sage and precise methods.
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)