Movie plot: In a heroic effort to save the world's soybean crop from dastardly evolving weeds the Environmental Protection Agency authorizes Big Ag – staring Bayer AG and BASF – to unleash the flawed herbicide dicamba in a desperate all-out assault. The EPA acknowledges the holy h-e-double-toothpicks of dicamba is risky but assures everyone they've “got a label” for that. Dicamba beats back the weed invaders, but collateral damage is huge to the nation's peach, cotton, tobacco, tomato, and sunflower crops. EPA says it's sorry about all the unwanted damage and swears to tweak dicamba rules of weed engagement and next time it will be different (cue patriotic music and American flags).
Sadly, the movie is based on a true story. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting has shown that over the years dicamba has been an unmitigated disaster. Yeah it kills some evolving herbicide-tolerant weeds, but it also drifts all over the countryside damaging and killing any other unfortunate vegetation in its path.
Ever since it was first approved back in 2016 EPA has tried unsuccessfully to issue guidance to prevent dicamba from drifting. Let's be frank. Nothing – that's nooooooothinnnng – has worked. In fact, a U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling handed down in June ripped EPA for its lack of oversight in approving dicamba for use:
“The EPA made multiple errors in granting the conditional registrations…the EPA substantially understated the risks it acknowledged, and it entirely failed to acknowledge other risks.”
Monsanto received EPA approval for dicamba tolerant soybeans back in 2016. But Monsanto did not receive EPA approval for its version of dicamba until the 2017 season. Farmers sprayed whatever they had in hand in 2016 with disastrous results. It wasn't much better in 2017.
By now you might ask, are Bayer AG and BASF dicamba formulations simply flawed? Is it possible that dicamba drift can't be controlled?
EPA says no-no-no. Last month EPA issued new five year registrations for Bayer AG and BASF dicamba formulations with yet another set of confusing and complicated labels sure to create more lawsuits.
Farmers also have to take great stock in which way the wind is blowing in dicamba application. The new label requires a downwind buffer of 210 feet. That's 130 feet more than previously.
Applications will still require the same wind speed, sprayer speed and time-of-day limitations as the 2018 labels, but dicamba's cutoff date will be June 30 on hope that lower temperatures will limit drifting and damage.
EPA is betting a lot on all of this working. But frankly, it's given the game away. It used to be that states could fairly easily issue further restrictions on dicamba labels through Section 24(c) of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. For instance, pushing cut off dates earlier in the growing season. That will no longer be the case. Now states will be required to use FIFRA Section 24(a) (emphasis added) in order to further restrict federal dicamba labels which will take individual state or legislative action. Section 24(c) will be used by states only wishing to ease label restrictions.
Meanwhile, farmers have become massively torqued because a June 30 dicamba spraying cutoff will miss control of water hemp and kochia. The American Soybean Association and Plains Cotton Growers have sued the EPA saying the agency exceeded its authority under FIFRA.
I expect in the new year the courts will be very busy sorting out the potential effectiveness of these dicamba label changes. My guess is that there will be a fair amount of skepticism in the courts given EPA's shoddy track record in regulating dicamba. And if that isn't enough come January 2021 there will be a new POTUS in town. I fully expect a significant sweeping over at EPA and it is entirely possible these new dicamba registrations will be part of the cleaning. Now that would be a dicamba movie with a different ending.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.