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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved dicamba herbicides for use over-the-top of genetically modified cotton and soybean crops for five years, Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced Tuesday.

The decision will allow the continued use of the controversial herbicide, which has been blamed for millions of acres of crop damage in recent years. The EPA approved three products: Bayer’s XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology; BASF’s Engenia; and Syngenta’s Tavium Plus VaporGrip Technology.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal banned Bayer and BASF’s versions of dicamba because of their propensity to move off of where it is applied and harm crops and natural areas. In the ruling, the three-judge panel found that the EPA failed to consider harms to farmers and the environment. 

However, Wheeler said that new restrictions on when the herbicide can be sprayed will solve the issues brought up by the Ninth Circuit. 

The restrictions include:

  • Requiring dicamba to be mixed with a volatility-reducing chemical in an applicator tank. The most common way that dicamba moves off target is through volatilization, when it turns from a liquid into a gas in the hours or days after it is sprayed. 
  • Extending a downwind buffer to 240 feet and 310 feet where Endangered Species are located;
  • Implementing a nation-wide cut-off date after which dicamba cannot be sprayed. That date will be June 30 for soybeans and July 30 for cotton. 

“We believe at this point, (the decision) will be protective of other farmers' crops by increasing the buffer zone and requiring the (volatility reducing) agent,” Wheeler said.

EPA officials in 2016 and 2018 also said the herbicide approvals would eliminate any concerns with volatility and damage to other crops, yet each year, thousands of farmers have complained about dicamba damage. The Ninth Circuit ruling found the past measures were not successful in reducing the damage.

Bayer praised the decision in a press release issued Tuesday afternoon.

“We welcome the EPA’s science-based review and registration decision providing growers access to this important tool,” said Lisa Safarian, President of Bayer Crop Science North America. “Growers need options, and we are proud of our role in bringing innovations like XtendiMax herbicide forward to help growers safely and successfully protect their crops from tough-to-control weeds.”

However, conservation groups, which successfully argued the case to the Ninth Circuit, were skeptical the changes would stop the harm.

“Given EPA-approved versions of dicamba have already damaged millions of U.S. acres of crops and natural areas there’s no reason to trust that the agency got it right this time,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. 

Center for Food Safety Legal Director George Kimbrell said the group will “most certainly challenge these unlawful approvals.”

Kimbrell called the announcement “political.” 

Wheeler made the announcement, along with American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall, from Savannah, Georgia, just days before the presidential election. Georgia is widely considered a toss-up in the presidential election. Georgia farmers produced nearly $900 million in cotton in 2019, according to federal agriculture data. 

Bayer and BASF first introduced dicamba-tolerant soybean and cotton crops with accompanying herbicides for the 2017 growing season. The herbicide traditionally was used on corn and the companies’ new products were aimed at more effective weed control. 

In a document published supporting Tuesday's decision, the EPA said that dicamba drift incidents have increased each year that dicamba has been used, with nearly 3,000 farmers filing complaints in 2019. 

Earlier this year, Bayer, which makes dicamba-tolerant crops and sells one version of dicamba, announced a $400 million settlement with farmers that have been damaged by dicamba. The company said it expects BASF, which also makes a version of dicamba, to contribute to the settlement. 

Past EPA dicamba approvals have been for two years because the agency needed more data, but Wheeler said the agency reviewed over 65 new studies and datasets and has all the information it needs to make the decision for a five-year approval, which will help give certainty to farmers.

The EPA is also limiting the ability of states to limit usage of dicamba, a senior EPA official said in the press call. 

In recent years, states have used a federal rule - the 24(c) label - to limit dicamba usage to help protect farmers from damage in their states through mechanisms such as a temperature cut-off or earlier cut-off date. This process allows state agriculture agencies to make changes; however, the new federal label can only be changed by a 24(a) process, which requires states to make a law or regulation changing the label. 

The EPA official said states can still use 24(c) labels to further expand dicamba use if they wish to.

Rob Faux, communications associate for Pesticide Action Network, another plaintiff in the Ninth Circuit lawsuit, said he is also a vegetable and poultry farmer in rural Iowa. He said prior to dicamba, he was able to harvest thousands of peppers. In the past three years, damage on his farm has been so bad that the harvest has been about 50 peppers total. 

“This is just another way to protect a corporate bottom line, instead of protecting farmers’ choices to grow what they want to grow,” Faux said. 

In 2020, Iowa had landscape level damage from dicamba. He said this makes it impossible to grow anything other than dicamba-tolerant soybeans.

“It’s everywhere in the state if you look for it,” Faux said. “If you want to grow soybeans and want to make sure your crop doesn’t get damaged, you’re getting wedged into a corner. If you want to have a winery or grow vegetable crops, good luck to you.”