The 2017 growing season was supposed to be the year of “spotless” soybean fields after Monsanto introduced a new generation of soybeans – the largest single biotechnology launch in the company’s history.
The new soybeans can tolerate the use of dicamba, a traditional herbicide used on corn that spreads easily and has historically harmed soybeans.
But the idea was that dicamba would make quick work of the “superweeds” wreaking havoc in fields across the Midwest. Over the past years, the weeds had developed a resistance to glyphosate – the active ingredient in Roundup, the most widely used herbicide in corn and soybean production.
Monsanto and German chemical company BASF also touted a new, less volatile version of dicamba that wouldn’t drift like traditional versions.
But where the companies saw a solution, Illinois crop scientist Aaron Hager saw major problems coming.
Instead of weed-free fields, the dicamba herbicide drifted off target throughout non-dicamba-resistant soybean fields in the Midwest and South. Leaves cupped in nearby fields. Growth was stunted. Some plants withered and died.
As a result, the Illinois Department of Agriculture has received 368 complaints so far in 2017, which are more alleged pesticide misuse complaints than in the previous three years combined, according to a review of a statewide database of complaints by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
The pesticide complaint database, which is updated through August 31, is for both herbicides, which control weeds, and insecticides, which control insects. Alleged dicamba drift made up 239 of those complaints.
Warren Goetsch, acting bureau chief of the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s bureau of environmental programs, said the surge in complaints is largely due to dicamba.
Complaints also reached record levels in Iowa, according to a report from the Des Moines Register.
“This was very predictable that this was going to happen,” said Hager, a crop science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. “We’ve only known for 50 years that soybeans are one of the most sensitive plants to dicamba. I continue to be amazed when people ask, ‘Why is this so common?’ I mean, what did people really expect?”
And Hager and other experts say these complaints reflect a much larger amount of damage caused by dicamba this season.
Overall, dicamba damaged more than 3.1 million acres of soybeans across the United States, according an estimate by Kevin Bradley, a crop science professor at the University of Missouri, who surveyed agriculture departments in affected states.
Monsanto has maintained that damage was caused mostly by misapplication and misuse of dicamba. In response to questions from the Midwest Center, Monsanto officials issued a news release.
Ty Vaughn, global regulatory lead for Monsanto, wrote in the news release that Monsanto is continuing to work with farmers, weed scientists, applicators, retail partners, and regulators “to understand what they’re seeing and what they need.”
Vaughn wrote that Monsanto would continue sharing additional details around their efforts “to bring this new, and much-needed, technology to farmers and what efforts we’ll make to help farmers have a successful 2018 season." (Full response here.)
No action taken
Earlier this year, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri issued new regulations on the use of dicamba, with Arkansas banning the herbicide altogether. In addition, farmers filed lawsuits against Monsanto in at least 10 states.
But while these states tightened regulations, Illinois and Iowa did not change any policies.
Hager estimates that Illinois had at least half a million acres that show signs of damage from dicamba drift, but said he did not know why no action was taken.
“You would have to ask the director in Springfield. They have a vested interest in regulating pesticides,” he said.
Goetsch said the department is still investigating the complaints because they are alleged and not confirmed.
He said it will be months before the department will finalize its investigation. The investigation includes interviews in the field, a review of weather data and some field tests to determine the extent of dicamba damage and the causes.
“Since the use season is virtually over, it's kind of a moot point now. Next time you'll see this product used is this spring,” he said in an August interview. “Between now and then, I think everybody should be getting all their information together and we should re-evaluate how we proceed for next year based on solid scientific information.”
Goetsch said the department also will get more information from insurance companies, manufacturers, distributers, users and university researchers before making a determination on dicamba regulations going forward.
"We're not wanting to be more restrictive or less restrictive. We want to make sure we're regulating these at the appropriate level. We want to make sure we have our information accurate going forward for 2018,” he said.
But Hager said, from his perspective traveling across the state working with farmers, he has heard many complaints from people affected by drift.
“There's going to be enough complaints from constituents that they might have to pass something in the legislature,” Hager said.
Ban on dicamba considered
Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering a ban of the use of dicamba, and Arkansas has already taken steps toward a ban.
Monsanto officials said the damage was minimal, considering that over the summer that across the United States about 25 million acres of dicamba-resistant soybeans and cotton were planted.
The company said Illinois, where about one-third of the total 10.4 million soybean acres planted were dicamba-resistant, is an example of a state where lower complaints numbers meant “it appears the technology is working successfully on the overwhelming majority of acres.”
"Most of this summer I have spent on the phone being a therapist to farmers and retailers wanting to know what happened,” said Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association. “They are extremely concerned and want to fix this. ... No one crop is more important than any other crop."
Payne said that overall, the complaints aren’t that high, considering the extent of crops produced.
"On 22 million acres of crops produced, we only average about 120 complaints a year,” Payne said.
But Goetsch acknowledged many farmers did not make formal complaints.
Indeed, the acreage reflected in the number of complaints was much lower than Hager’s 500,000 acre “conservative estimate” and Bradley’s 600,000 acre estimate for damage in Illinois.
"We're certainly not naive enough to believe these are the only situations that happen," Goetsch said.
An earlier version of this article originally said Warren Goetsch is acting director of the bureau for environmental programs. Goetsch is the acting bureau chief. The Illinois EPA said he holds two titles, Deputy Director and also Acting Bureau Chief of Environmental Programs, and said he was speaking as Acting Bureau Chief.