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Reports of dicamba drift incidents are once again higher this year than in the past. Photo submitted

As reports of dicamba drift rise, groups move forward with lawsuit

By Linda Wells, Pesticide Action Network

Each year since Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant Xtend seeds hit the market, farmers and rural communities have braced for record levels of pesticide drift. This season, the number of reports is even higher despite the new label restrictions for applications.

From its inception, the Xtend crop system was bound to be a divisive disaster for all kinds of farmers. The negative impacts of the Xtend system on neighboring farms and ecosystems, and on the ever-tougher battle with herbicide-resistant weeds, will last longer than dicamba’s effectiveness as an over-the-top pesticide application for commodity crops.

The Xtend system is another instance of Monsanto (now Bayer) promising a short-sighted “solution” to a problem of its own creation—herbicide-resistance. While farmers who don’t use the Xtend system deal with dicamba drift, crop damage, and yield loss, Bayer sees financial gains from an increase in acreage planted to dicamba-resistant soybeans, and a corresponding increase in purchases of their dicamba-based herbicide formulation, Xtendimax.

Drift Incidents
With this year’s late start to planting season, reports of drift incidents were trickling in through mid-August. But now several state agricultural agencies are reporting that 2019 may see the highest number of dicamba drift incidents yet. In Illinois, for example, the state Department of Agriculture has received 590 reports of alleged dicamba drift incidents, up from 330 last year. Indiana has had 140 dicamba drift reports this year, already surpassing 2018. In Arkansas, nearly 200 dicamba injury cases have been reported.

Though these numbers are high, we also know that pesticide drift is vastly underreported. Reporting protocols vary by state and aren’t always clearly communicated or readily accessible, and farmers may worry they’ll face social repercussions for reporting drift from neighboring farms.

Xtend crop planting has increased each year, from 25 million acres in 2017, doubling to 50 million in 2018, and estimated to reach 60 million acres in 2019 (Bayer’s projected total for soybean and cotton acreage combined). Some soybean farmers who were themselves reluctant to buy into the Xtend system have said they felt compelled to do so as a defensive 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. However, 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.

Further, 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 effect, Bayer’s Xtend system is now undermining the publicly funded agricultural research that farmers need more than ever, as increasingly erratic weather and environmental stresses require them to have access to a greater, not lower, diversity of seeds.

Dicamba itself is already losing its efficacy in weed control. 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.

“Dicamba is probably a technology that can’t bear the weight of true science,” said Charlie Johnson, MOSES board member and organic farmer from South Dakota. Johnson’s farm has been hit by drift six different times, including by dicamba in 2017. He and organic farmer Dela Ends shared their stories and strategies for dealing with drift in a workshop at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference this year.

“If you can’t keep your product on your side of the fence, it is useless technology as far as I’m concerned,” Johnson added. “Strong agronomy in organic farming is showing that you can raise quality food without the use of these harmful chemicals. The dependency on chemicals shouldn’t take precedence over individual freedom for good air and good food.”

Long before Xtendimax was approved for over-the-top applications, 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 against its increased usage include Steve Smith with Red Gold and weed scientist Dave Mortensen, who both warned of the damage the 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 blames applicators for applying the product incorrectly.

Regulatory Framework
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 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, while ignoring both the agency’s broader mandate to “help rural America thrive” and the virtually assured impacts of a GMO seed specifically designed to enable widespread spraying of a volatile, drift-prone herbicide.

Soon thereafter, in 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (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, and that its use within the Xtend system would ensure application throughout the warmer months, virtually guaranteeing increased volatilization and widespread damage.

The seemingly willful refusal of both public agencies to consider the devastating ramifications of their twin decisions to farmers’ livelihoods and rural communities exposes fundamental flaws in our regulatory system. Agency officials speak of the “coordinated framework” around biotech regulation between USDA and EPA. However, the coordination in this flawed system is one that facilitates corporate profit at the expense of rural communities and their environments.

In response to our public agencies’ failure to defend the public interest, the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) along with the National Family Farm Coalition, Center for Biological Diversity, and Center for Food Safety (which provided legal representation) filed a lawsuit against the EPA in 2017, challenging the EPA’s decision to deregulate Xtendimax. This 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.

Subsequent label restrictions suggested by Monsanto and imposed by EPA last year have been decried by growers and scientists alike as impossible to follow, rendering the new instructions meaningless. Political appointees at the EPA even overruled the agency’s own scientists, watering down the latter’s proposal to institute buffer zones, reducing the proposed “no-spray” distance from endangered plants from 453 feet to a mere 57 feet.

As the EPA has continued to avoid taking corrective action, PAN and its lawsuit partners have had to continue litigation into 2019, hoping the lawsuit will be settled in farmers’ favor, disallowing further use of Xtendimax before the next spray season of 2020.

Meanwhile, frustrated with the lack of responsible action at the federal level, some states are continuing to take their own steps to protect farmers and mitigate drift. Illinois and Arkansas have the most robust regulations of dicamba so far, limiting when dicamba can be sprayed, increasing buffer zones for certain sensitive sites, and other measures. Several other states have implemented a cutoff date for Xtendimax, including Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota. It should be noted, however, that even these additional actions did not prevent disastrous levels of drift in 2019.

Action Steps
The good news is, despite a lack of EPA leadership, action is possible at the state level. We encourage farmers and rural residents to keep speaking up about drift incidents and desired regulations to their state departments of agriculture as well as legislative representatives. Of course, the real solutions are being enacted by farmers themselves who are moving forward, abandoning the failing model of endless chemicals, diversifying their farming systems and embracing the mantra of healthy soils and healthy communities.

Consumers can support a transition to drift-free, ecological farming and the work of these courageous and visionary farmers by buying directly from them wherever possible, and by calling on local and state legislators to establish policies, programs, and incentives to help farmers diversify their farming operations and get off the pesticide treadmill.

PAN developed the In Case of Drift toolkit to help farmers and rural communities prepare to respond to drift in their homes, communities, regions, and states. This toolkit details how to protect your health, how and where to report drift incidents, how to seek compensation for crop loss, and tools for telling your story to legislators and other policymakers.

We invite you to join us in planting the seeds of a democratic, culturally, economically and ecologically vibrant, climate-resilient food and farming system for all. To stay up to speed on the latest ways to get involved, join PAN’s email alert list!

Linda Wells is the Midwest director of organizing for PAN (Pesticide Action Network).


From the September | October 2019 Issue


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