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EPA Ruling Clears Path for Dicamba’s Use on Arkansas Farms

Source credit: www.arkansasonline.com 

Farmers will be allowed to use dicamba on soybeans and cotton for the next two years, even as other farmers and weed scientists say the herbicide still has a tendency to move off target and damage other crops and vegetation.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to continue allowing the herbicide’s use was announced early Wednesday evening, ending a three-month wait by farmers who initially were told to expect a decision in August.

The agency added new restrictions on spraying dicamba, but critics say the new limits do nothing to address the herbicide’s “volatility,” or ability to lift off crops as a vapor or gas hours or days after application and be blown to susceptible crops. Farmers who want to use dicamba say it’s essential in their battle against pigweed, now resistant to other herbicides.

The EPA hasn’t yet released the “label” — detailed instructions and rules — for the three formulations of dicamba at the center of a running dispute that has divided farmers for three years.

“I think it’s a good decision, and I’d love to have the opportunity to follow it,” Michael McCarty, a Mississippi County farmer, said Thursday. “I think they addressed some things that were worrying a lot of people. It did surprise me they took so long to go about it, or we’d be a lot further down the road planning for next season.”

McCarty, like other farmers who plant dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybeans, praised its effectiveness against pigweed and touted high yields in the fall.

Ford Baldwin, a farm consultant and retired weed scientist, said tests across Arkansas and other soybean-producing states have consistently shown the volatility of the herbicide, leading him to believe the EPA’s decision “was more a political decision than a scientific one.” The EPA had more access to unbiased testing and scientific data this year than ever before, Baldwin said.

“I am pro-agriculture, pro-herbicide, so I am not against new technology,” Baldwin said, “but I’ve felt since 2011 dicamba wasn’t a solution. The first regulation [allowing dicamba] was horribly wrong, and this regulation is horribly wrong. I hope it works, but I think a lot of non-ag vegetation and ecosystems are going to be destroyed.”

Dicamba was banned this year for in-crop use in Arkansas after the state Plant Board, a division of the Arkansas Agriculture Department, received about 1,000 complaints last year of dicamba damage, mainly to soybeans but also to fruits, vegetables, trees, ornamental shrubs and bushes, and to wild vegetation key to pollination.

The board has received 200 similar complaints this year, despite a ban on the herbicide’s use from April 16 through harvest time, leading officials to believe some farmers violated the ban.

The manufacturers said applicator error was mostly to blame for damage, and this year it expanded training sessions to thousands of farmers in states where the new dicamba formulations could still be applied.

The Arkansas ban was the only one in the nation, although other states with dicamba complaints set other restrictions based on calendar dates or temperatures. The Plant Board, like its regulatory counterparts in other states, now can accept the new EPA regulations or pass other restrictions.

In Arkansas, only BASF’s dicamba formulation, called Engenia, had been approved by the Plant Board for in-crop use. Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, sued the state for not allowing its Xtendimax dicamba to be sold and used in Arkansas. A judge’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit has been appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The board, well before the EPA’s decision, scheduled a meeting at 1 p.m. Monday to consider a proposal by a group of Arkansas farmers to allow dicamba’s use throughout next year’s growing season. The board’s pesticide committee is scheduled to meet at 9:30 a.m. Nov. 15.

The EPA gave Bayer, BASF and DowDuPont another two years, until Dec. 20, 2020, to sell dicamba for use on crops genetically engineered to be tolerant of the weedkiller. The current two-year labels for the three products start expiring this month. EPA labels typically are good for at least 10 years.

The manufacturers say their new formulations are less susceptible to off-target movement than older versions of dicamba.

Bayer representatives said in a conference call Thursday afternoon that they believed the new federal regulations are strict enough and had addressed concerns in the past three growing seasons about dicamba’s off-target movement. “We hope states don’t feel the need” for more restrictions, Ty Witten, a Bayer representative, said.

The EPA set two new restrictions on the herbicides:

• Only “certified applicators” can spray dicamba over the top of crops. Previously, employees working under the supervision of a certified applicator could spray. The EPA didn’t elaborate whether “certified applicators” applied to commercial applicators, private applicators or both.

• In-crop use of the herbicide on soybeans must cease 45 days after planting, and for cotton 60 days after planting. That restriction would have a bigger effect on early-planted soybeans — in March and April — than beans planted in May and later, because cooler weather delays plants’ emergence.

Bayer said farmers planted 50 million acres of dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton this year, with that number likely to grow by another 20 million acres next year. About half of Arkansas’ 3.3 million acres of soybeans and 500,000 acres of cotton are dicamba-tolerant.

Baldwin said more dicamba-tolerant crops will lead to more dicamba use, leading then to more dicamba damage, especially as summer temperatures rise and pressure from weeds increases.

The EPA also reduced from four to two the number of dicamba applications to cotton. Previously, dicamba could be applied to cotton four times during the growing season. Spraying dicamba will be limited to between one hour after sunrise and two hours before sunset, to lessen off-target movement during a temperature “inversion.”

McCarty, who was among six Arkansas farmers who sued the Plant Board over this year’s ban, said recent changes to the Plant Board’s membership give him some measure of confidence that the board will allow dicamba in-crop next year. “I’ve talked to a lot of members the last few weeks and asked them to consider giving us some relief,” he said. “I feel like everybody’s listening. We’ve lost so many battles on this, but we’re resilient.”

Like Monsanto, the farmers lost their lawsuit in circuit court, although that decision also has been appealed.

Monsanto, which began selling its dicamba-tolerant seeds before gaining initial EPA approval in late 2016 for the accompanying herbicide, has been sued by farmers in Arkansas and at least seven other states for crop damage. The EPA also has been sued in federal court by environmental groups for not properly assessing dicamba’s potential threat against endangered species before allowing its use.

In its decision Wednesday, and without elaboration, the EPA said it “has also determined that extending these registrations with the new safety measures will not affect endangered species.”

Nathan Donley, a scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity and occasional visitor to Arkansas meetings involving dicamba said in a news release that the EPA’s “reckless re-approval of this dangerous poison ignores damage to crops, natural areas and backyard gardens of millions of acres.”

“Simply adding more use restrictions to an uncontrollable pesticide that already comes with 39 pages of instructions and limitations reflects a broken process,” Donley said “Pesticide regulation has been hijacked by pesticide makers.”

The original story can be found here.