Death By Stealth – A Herbicide In The US Pits Neighbour Against Neighbour

Death By Stealth

The deadly drama that has been unfolding around normally peaceful Midwestern farming communities is slightly reminiscent of John Carpenter’s 2005 horror movie ‘The Fog’.

The herbicide dicamba isn’t a glowing mist but an invisible poisonous cloud that drifts with the wind for up to 72 hours. It’s one of the acting ingredients of Agent Orange, the defoliation spray used by the US during the Vietnam war, and today for many US soybean farmers it has become the poison of last resort against glyphosate-resistant ‘super-weeds’ in their fields.

GE crops were introduced in the mid-1990s, today well over 90% of all corn (maize), soy and cotton planted in the US are genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate. And ‘super weeds’ have become a huge problem: at times nothing works except pulling them out by hand.

In response to this situation, Monsanto created Roundup Ready Xtend, a new generation of GE seeds that tolerate being sprayed with a combination of glyphosate and dicamba. From the start scientists at Monsanto were aware of the problem with dicamba drift but they assured farmers that – if used correctly – they could eradicate the weeds but not damage the crops in neighbouring fields. In 2016 the seeds were licensed for use and this year the corresponding new formula dicamba herbicide became available, too. US farmers were delighted and planted 20 million acres of dicamba-resistant soybeans and 5 million acres of cotton. For many it was a financial leap of faith: the dicamba-resistant seeds are more expensive and special equipment is needed to spray the Xtend herbicide.

The problems started in June when farmers in Missouri and Arkansas, who were growing ‘traditional’ non dicamba-resistant GE soybeans, started to complain about drift damage from neighbouring fields. Stunted plant growth, leaves curling up or the whole plant turning brown and dying were the symptoms farmers observed. Then complaints started pouring in from Illinois, Iowa and Kansas, from Minnesota and the Dakotas in the north to Tennessee and Mississippi in the south. By July the problem had become so bad that Arkansas banned the spraying of dicamba for 120 days with immediate effect. Missouri enforced only a short ban to give Monsanto time to publish stricter, even more detailed spraying instructions. ‘Non-compliance will be fined by a penalty of up to $25,000’, Chris Chin, the Missouri director of agriculture, said. But what got her really worried were commercial herbicide applicators who told her they had followed the rules to the letter and still weren’t sure they hadn’t caused damage: ‘Commercial applicators have to keep very tedious records and if they say they might have a problem you want to pay attention to it.’

By now there are thousands of complaints, 16 states have been affected and Kevin Bradley, a researcher at the University of Missouri estimates that more than 3.1 million acres of soybeans have been damaged, about 4% of the total US soybean acreage. There are no figures about the damage to other crops, nobody has yet assessed how many fruit trees have been damaged, how many acres of watermelons, vegetables, and private gardens.

Like The Fog, the poisonous dicamba cloud kills whatever leafy plant is in its path, only grass and corn escape unscathed. No one has yet assessed how many organic farms have been affected. Dicamba damage is particularly troubling for organic agriculture because the farmers not only lose yield and income, they also lose their organic certification.

So what about next year?

The superweed problem is as pressing as ever, many farmers say they desperately need the dicamba-glyphosate formula to be available, even though there are indications that it may not work for long: dicamba-resistant pigweed has already been found in Tennessee and Arkansas ... But farmers are also aware that dicamba isn’t just doing damage to crops, it is damaging relationships between neighbours and it’s tearing communities apart. ‘We’ve got to get back to respecting a neighbour’s crop as well as your own’, said a farmer during a discussion in a US farming radio programme. But Kevin Bradley from the University of Missouri fears that next year more farmers will plant the dicamba-resistant varieties because it is the only way to guarantee they will have a crop.

In Arkansas a government task force has recommended banning the use of dicamba in the 2018 growing season. So far it’s the only state contemplating a ban and the industry isn’t having it. Monsanto said the company had worked for years on the new dicamba formula and blamed the farmers for not applying it correctly. The company said there was no scientific basis for a ban and legal action would be taken should it come into force. A lot is at stake – for farmers, for agriculture, organic agriculture in particular, for the environment and for the food system as a whole, not just in the US.

Because in Britain we better take note: After Brexit a trade agreement with the United States is very likely to mean that GE crops will be grown in the UK, too. The former DEFRA secretary, Owen Paterson, is just one of the politicians who’s long been arguing that British agriculture needs GE crops. But with them come superweeds, glyphosate and eventually The Dicamba Fog.