Longtime agricultural researcher Charles Benbrook on how the EPA neutered an otherwise bold and reasoned ban on a highly volatile, troublesome herbicide and what this means for farmers in the future.
I have followed major pesticide-related court actions for about 40 years.
How we got here<p> The use of dicamba as an over-the-top herbicide on genetically modified crops has been controversial from day one. </p><p> Dicamba is highly volatile. It has a habit of moving off fields after a legal application, blowing downwind, and then falling back to Earth with rain, fog, or changing temperatures. When dicamba lands on susceptible trees, shrubs, and crops, bad things happen. Dicamba causes the equivalent of plant reproductive and developmental defects. </p><p> In 2012 a broad-based coalition of agricultural and food industry groups and leaders formed the Save Our Crops Coalition (SOCC). It led a grass-roots effort to compel Monsanto and the EPA to take seriously, and mitigate the risk of off-target dicamba movement onto fields of nearby crops, vines, and trees. The SOCC focused mostly on Monsanto, the company which developed the dicamba-tolerant seeds and manufactures several dicamba herbicides formulated for use on them. </p><p> Despite the Coalition's efforts, the EPA approved the new dicamba formulations for use on genetically modified soybeans and cotton in time for the 2017 crop season. As predicted by the Coalition, drift and crop damage problems occurred just about everywhere dicamba-resistant seeds were planted and the new over-the-top formulations were sprayed. </p><p> Each year since, the EPA has imposed stricter limits on when and how over-the-top dicamba can be applied, despite warnings from the Coalition, several state regulatory officials, academics, and others that the added restrictions were like putting a band aid on an amputated limb. </p><p> Each year problems persisted, and, in many ways, have worsened. </p><p> <iframe src="https://player.vimeo.com/video/232115660" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; fullscreen" allowfullscreen=""></iframe></p>
Landing in court<p>In the fall of 2018, the EPA issued a new, time-limited conditional registration for over-the-top dicamba covering crop years 2019 and 2020. Soon after, the National Family Farm Coalition, Center for Food Safety and two other NGOs sued the EPA, seeking to overturn the just-approved conditional registration.</p> <p>The case has wound through the court system since, culminating in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals review and ruling earlier this month.</p> <p>The court revoked the registration for three dicamba-based herbicides for use over-the-top on genetically modified soybeans, essentially banning further sales and use of the products. </p><p>An excerpt from the <a href="https://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2020/06/03/19-70115.pdf" target="_blank">ruling</a> explains why the judges issued such a strong order:</p><p>"The EPA substantially understated three risks that it acknowledged... the EPA refused to estimate the amount of dicamba damage, characterizing such damage as "potential" and "alleged," when record evidence showed that dicamba had caused substantial and undisputed damage."</p> <p>Herein lies where and how EPA violated our national pesticide law. In order to grant a conditional registration, the EPA must determine, based on the weight of the evidence, that approval of over-the-top dicamba applications will not trigger any new or more serious "adverse impacts on man or the environment." </p> <p>But the <a href="https://usrtk.org/pesticides/dicamba-papers/" target="_blank">lower-court record</a> in this case showed clearly that such applications would trigger more serious problems, and also that <em>EPA knew they would</em>, leading the court to vacate the registrations.</p> <p>Whether the appeal court's action will be honored and enforced remains to be seen. Before the ink was dry on the court's order, several State Departments of Agriculture issued statements to the grower community, pesticide retailers, and applicators that further use was just fine, unless and until EPA orders a full stop. </p> <p>The Texas Ag Commissioner, Sid Miller, left little to the imagination in his <a href="https://www.morningagclips.com/texas-ag-commissioner-releases-statement-on-dicamba-ruling/" target="_blank">official statement</a>: </p><p>"For the farmers in Texas, I want to be clear: I've got your back. Dicamba is still available for use in Texas as currently labeled and will continue to be so until someone tells us to stop." </p> <p>That "full stop" won't happen until July 31, so over-the-top dicamba use will continue through the traditional, post-emergence spray season.</p>
Dr. Jason Norsworthy, Division of Agriculture weed scientist, right, and graduate student Michael Houston examine soybeans used as biodetectors in a dicamba volatility study in 2018. (Credit: Ark. Agricultural Experiment Station/flickr)