This miracle weed killer was supposed to save farms; instead, it’s devastating them

By Caitlin Dewey, The Washington Post

BLYTHEVILLE, Ark. – Clay Mayes slams on the brakes of his Chevy Silverado and jumps out with the engine running, yelling at a dogwood by the side of the dirt road as if it said something insulting.

Its leaves curl downward and in on themselves like tiny, broken umbrellas. It’s the telltale mark of inadvertent exposure to a controversial herbicide called dicamba.

“This is crazy. Crazy!” shouts Mayes, a farm manager, gesticulating toward the shriveled canopy off Highway 61. “I just think if this keeps going on …”

“Everything’ll be dead,” says Brian Smith, his passenger.

The damage here in northeast Arkansas and across the Midwest – sickly soybeans, trees and other crops – has become emblematic of a deepening crisis in American agriculture.

Farmers are locked in an arms race between ever-stronger weeds and ever-stronger weed killers.

The dicamba system, approved for use for the first time this spring, was supposed to break the cycle and guarantee weed control in soybeans and cotton. The herbicide – used in combination with a genetically modified dicamba-resistant soybean – promises better control of unwanted plants such as pigweed, which has become resistant to common weed killers.

The problem, farmers and weed scientists say, is that dicamba has drifted from the fields where it was sprayed, damaging millions of acres of unprotected soybeans and other crops in what some are calling a man-made disaster. Critics contend that the herbicide was approved by federal officials without enough data, particularly on the critical question of whether it could drift off target.

Government officials and manufacturers Monsanto and BASF deny the charge, saying the system had worked as Congress designed it.

The backlash against dicamba has spurred lawsuits, state and federal investigations, and one argument that ended in a farmer’s shooting death and related murder charges.

“This should be a wake-up call,” said David Mortensen, a weed scientist at Pennsylvania State University.

Herbicide-resistant weeds are thought to cost U.S. agriculture millions of dollars per year in lost crops.

After the Environmental Protection Agency approved the updated formulation of the herbicide for use this spring and summer, farmers across the country planted more than 20 million acres of dicamba-resistant soybeans, according to Monsanto.

But as dicamba use has increased, so too have reports that it “volatilizes,” or re-vaporizes and travels to other fields. That harms nearby trees, such as the dogwood outside of Blytheville, as well as nonresistant soybeans, fruits and vegetables, and plants used as habitats by bees and other pollinators.

According to one 2004 assessment, dicamba is 75 to 400 times more dangerous to off-target plants than the common weed killer glyphosate, even at very low doses. It is particularly toxic to soybeans – the very crop it was designed to protect – that haven’t been modified for resistance.

Kevin Bradley, a University of Missouri researcher, estimates that more than 3.1 million acres of soybeans have been damaged by dicamba in at least 16 states, including major producers such as Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. That figure is probably low, according to researchers, and it represents almost 4 percent of all U.S. soybean acres.

“It’s really hard to get a handle on how widespread the damage is,” said Bob Hartzler, a professor of agronomy at Iowa State. “But I’ve come to the conclusion that [dicamba] is not manageable.”

The dicamba crisis comes on top of lower-than-forecast soybean prices and 14 straight quarters of declining farm income. The pressures on farmers are intense.

One Arkansas man is facing murder charges after he shot a farmer who had come to confront him about dicamba drift, according to law enforcement officials.

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