Organic, Specialty Crops, and Gardens Caught in the Crossfire: The War on Roundup Resistant Weeds Threatens Impending Harm

By an anonymous organic grower

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Amid reports of an “explosion” of glyphosate-resistant weeds, such as kochia, waterhemp and ragweed, Monsanto Company, BASF, Dow AgroSciences, and Bayer Crop Science are ramping up the corporate chemical war on Roundup resistant weeds with serious implications for organic and specialty crop producers, CSA and farmers market growers, and gardeners.

Glyphosate and GE-Roundup Ready technology is the principal method of weed control on 90% of the nation’s 60 million acres of soybeans, and more than 70% of corn and cotton, (Parker, 2011, pg. 11). 404 million more pounds of pesticides have been applied since GE herbicide-resistant (HR) crops were first introduced in 1996. (Clark, 2012) Intensive, wide-scale adoption led to rapid selection of 21 species of glyphosate-resistant weeds. (Parker, 2011, pg. 11) Biotechnology companies’ propose to “fix” the weed resistance problem with new GE crops resistant to even more toxic herbicides by stacking the herbicide resistant traits.

2,4-D, Dicamba, Isoxaflutole and the Threat to Specialty Crops

Dow AgroSciences is developing 2,4-D tolerant corn, soon to be followed by cotton and soybean, designed to be used in combination with its new Enlist herbicide which combines 2,4-D and glyphosate. Dicamba tolerant crops being developed by Monsanto are stacked with glyphosate tolerance as part of their new Roundup Ready Xtend program. In the line of fire of these new threats are broad-leaf plants in neighboring fields, gardens, orchards, shelterbelts, hedgerows, and yards in rural communities.

Potential for Non-target Injury

Felsot (2005) purports, despite efforts to train pesticide applicators, spray drift and non-target injury has not been satisfactorily mitigated. “Organic and specialty crop grower concerns over crop damage and damage to non-crop vegetation are ‘well-founded.’” (Parker, 2011)

Dicamba and 2,4-D mimic the plant hormone auxin, causing uncontrolled cell division and growth, damaging the vascular tissue. These two herbicides are similar in structure and mode-of action. All herbicides have the potential to drift during application. However, 2,4-D and dicamba can volatilize days after application and move long distances, killing, deforming, and causing bloom drop. 2,4-D and dicamba cause injury to broadleaf (non-cereal) crops, like soybeans, dry beans, green beans, peas, tomatoes, grapes, cucumbers, squash, melons, pumpkins, and other fruits and vegetables, particularly at flowering stage. (SOCC, 2013)

According to the Save Our Crops Coalition (SOCC), a grassroots coalition of specialty crop producers, a survey of state pesticide control officials listed 2,4-D as the herbicide most often involved in pesticide drift incidents and dicamba as the 3rd most commonly involved. This incidence far outpaces the relative use of these herbicides. 2,4-D ranks as 7th on EPA’s list of most commonly applied pesticides; Dicamba did not even make the top 25 list. (SOCC, 2013)

Implications of Stacking and Tank-mixing

A significant complication will be the stacking of new herbicide-resistant traits with glyphosate resistance, necessitating the use of mixes with glyphosate. (Wright et al. 2010, Seifert-Higgins and Eberwine 2010) “Research indicates that injury resulting from very low-dose combinations of 2,4-D or dicamba with glyphosate can be more damaging than with either herbicide used alone. (Wolfe et al. 2011)” (Parker, 2011, pg.11)

“Environmentally-induced” plant diseases are an “understood outcome” of off-target herbicide spray drift (Walker 1969). “The well-known history of disease syndromes caused by off-site movement of 2,4-D, dicamba and glyphosate is such that many specialty crop growers fear that their crops cannot be grown in a future landscape that will be inundated like never before with all of these active ingredients.” (Parker, 2011, pg. 12)

Petitions for Deregulation

Dow Agroscience and Monsanto both petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for deregulation and release of their new generation, GE, herbicide-resistant crops. Dow petitioned for deregulation of its Enlist corn, hoping to release it in 2013. Monsanto petitioned for deregulation of dicamba-resistant soybeans (MON 87708) with a target release date of 2014.

In May 2013 the USDA announced it will conduct full Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) for 2,4-D- and dicamba-resistant crops rather than the less stringent Environmental Assessment. Both the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the SOCC were calling for a full EIS. The CFS sued the USDA in the past for failure to conduct a full EIS during the approval process for both Roundup Ready alfalfa and Roundup Ready sugar beets. CFS won the lawsuits and the courts ordered the USDA to conduct an EIS. Bill Freese, a CFS Science Policy analyst, states, “This is the first time that they’ve done an EIS voluntarily.”

Slow “Roll-out”

Despite the delay, Monsanto has begun a “slow roll-out” of its new program, planting large, field-sized “Ground-Breaker” demonstration plots in North and South Dakota and in research plots in undisclosed locations. Steve Valenti, a Monsanto weed management technical representative for North and South Dakota, told AgWeek they are “confident that a ‘good, sophisticated’ clientele of farmers will be able to safely and effectively handle the complexity.” Valenti said Monsanto is working to develop [herbicide] products that are less volatile, so they won’t accidentally drift to non-target crops, even at low-wind speeds. The company recommends nozzles that deliver coarser spray, spraying at no more than 15 mph, 20 inches above the weed canopy.” (Pates, 2013)

Monsanto and BASF have entered into a licensing agreement to commercialize use BASF’s new proprietary “lower volatility” dicamba herbicide formulation, EngeniaClarity, for use with Monsanto’s GE dicamba-tolerant soybeans.

Steve Smith, Director of Agriculture for Red Gold, a tomato processor, is not buying it. “Dicamba is one of the nation’s most dangerous herbicides for non-target crop damage. Monsanto and BASF have not offered sensitive crop growers effective measures to protect against non-target crop damage.” (SOCC, 2012) Smith is President of the Board of Directors, Chairman of the SOCC. “I am convinced that in all my years serving the agricultural industry, the widespread use of dicamba herbicide poses the single most serious threat to the future of specialty crop industry in the Midwest.” (Parker, 2011, pg. 12)

According to the Center for Food Safety, “Penn State ecologist David Mortensen predicts that herbicide use on soy could increase 70% if the new 2,4-D and dicamba tolerant soybeans are adopted. Inevitably new “superweeds” will develop in response…, and the chemical arms race with weeds will continue. This means more pesticidal pollution, environmental damage, higher production costs, and of course, increasing profits for firms like Monsanto that sell both GE seed and pesticides.” (CFS, 2013a) The potential for health harm to farmers and the public will increase, as will injury to wild plants and the animals that depend on them. (CFS, 2013b)

Breathing Room and Time to Act

The CFS estimates that it may take the USDA until 2015 to complete the EIS. “Our goal is to stop these crops; to prevent them from being introduced—not just to delay but to prevent them,” Freese states. “These EISs give us some breathing room to do that.” (Organic Connections, 2013)

This “new generation” of herbicide resistant GE crops pose a serious cross-roads for American agriculture. Dicamba and 2,4-D resistant crops pose a whole new threat to the “coexistence” of organic and GE crops. “At a time when farmers, citizens, and government have worked hard to limit our use of, and exposure to, hazardous pesticides like dicamba, approving this crop would take us backwards, seriously endangering human health and the environment.” (CFS, 2013)

Take Action!

Please consider taking part in these networks and action alerts. Every voice matters.

Join the Center for Food Safety True Food Network! and respond to their action alerts: www.centerforfoodsafety.org/take-action#

Sign the Center for Food Safety petition to the USDA to reject these risky new GE crops: http://bit.ly/NoDicambaSoy

Sign up for action alerts from the Pesticide Action Network (PAN): www.panna.org/signup

Join the Save Our Crops Coalition: http://saveourcrops.org/join/

Urge USDA to consider the harmful impacts of 2,4-D and dicamba drift on specialty crop production, rural community health and farmers’ livelihoods. Contact Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack at (202) 720-3631.

References Cited:

Center for Food Safety (CFS), 2013a. Stop Monsanto’s Dicamba Tolerant Soybeans! Accessed 8/13/13 at: http://bit.ly/NoDicambaSoy

Center for Food Safety (CFS), 2013b. Summary of Center for Food Safety’s Science Comments to EPA on Monsanto’s Request to Register Dicamba Herbicide for Use on Monsanto’s Dicamba-Resistant MON 87708 Soybean. Accessed 8/15/13 at: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/files/cfs-science-comments-on-dicamba-use-registration-summary.pdf

Clark, Brian, 2012. Pesticide Use Rises as Herbicide-resistant Weeds Undermine Performance of Major GE Crops, New WSU Study Shows. Accessed 8/16/13 at: http://news.cahnrs.wsu.edu/2012/10/01/pesticide

Felsot, Allan S. 2005. Evaluation and Mitigation of Spray Drift. Proc. International Workshop on Crop Protection Chemistry in Latin America; Harmonized Approaches for Environmental Assessment and Regulation, 14-17 February, San Jose, Costa Rica.

Organic Connections, 2013. Center for Food Safety Halts New GE Crops. Accessed 8/16/13 at: http://organicconnectmag.com/wp/center-for-food-safety-halts-new-ge-crops/

Pesticide Action Network (PAN), 2013. Be the Change. Accessed 8/16/13 at: www.panna.org/get-involved/action-center/be-the-change

Parker, Jason Shaw, 2011. The New 2,4-D and Dicamba-Tolerant Crops: Managing Risks to Farms and Communities. Accessed 8/16/13 at: http://riskanalysis.osu.edu/sites/drupal-riskanlys.web/files/OSU_symposium_proceedings.pdf

Pates, Mikel, August 9, 2013. Slow rollout: New multi-mode chemical system. Accessed at: http://www.aberdeennews.com/farmforum/news/aan-ff-08-09-13-slowroll-20130809,0,2885767.story

Save Our Crops Coalition (SOCC), 2013. Herbicide Drift. Accessed 8/16/13 at: http://saveourcrops.org/non-target-damage/

Save Our Crops Coalition (SOCC), Sept. 20, 2012. SOCC Requests EPA Prepare an EIS. Accessed 8/16/13 at: http://saveourcrops.org/

Wolfe, S., Jiang, L., Scurlock, D., Dami, I., Doohan, D. 2011. Response of Grapes to Simulated 2,4-D, Dicamba, and Glyphosate Drift. Proceedings of the 66th Annual Meeting of the North Central Weed Science Society, Milwaukee, Wis.

September/October 2013

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