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"It’s happening again. In states from Mississippi to Indiana, some US soybean farmers are seeing a troubling sight: Previously healthy plants begin to look wan, their leaves puckering into a cup-like shape. Similar symptoms are hitting trees, ornamental and garden plants, flowers, berries, and vegetables.
If the story sounds familiar, that’s because cupped leaves and the angry farmers who tend them are emerging as a recurring summer saga in the Heartland as swaths of land are exposed to errant mists of the potent herbicide dicamba. The pesticide is marketed by Monsanto, the erstwhile US seed/pesticide giant which will soon be subsumed into German chemical behemoth Bayer. And as Bayer integrates Monsanto, it’s also inheriting the smaller company’s dicamba mess.
For three years now, Monsanto has been hotly marketing a product called Roundup Ready 2 Xtend—soybean seeds genetically tweaked to produce crops that can withstand both dicamba and another herbicide, glyphosate (Roundup). The company’s “Roundup Ready” glyphosate-tolerant crops, released in the mid-1990s, became so ubiquitous in US farm country, and the chemical became so widely used, that weeds evolved to withstand it. Now, the company is pitching its dicamba-ready seeds as the answer to the declining effectiveness of its glyphosate-tolerant products.
Until 2016, dicamba was seldom used on farms after May, because by then, crops had fully emerged from the ground, and they’d be vulnerable to dicamba. But there was also another good reason not to spray it in high summer: In hot weather, dicamba is prone to volatizing—that is, turning into a gas and moving in the air to nearby fields, where it can cause unintended damage."
"By planting time in 2017, the EPA had given the green light to Monsanto’s “Vaporgrip” dicamba mix. Farmers went wild for the dicamba-tolerant soybeans, planting them on 20 million acres."
"By the end of the growing season, more than 3.5 million acres of soybeans in more than 20 states had been damaged, as well as untold acres of shrubs, trees, vegetables, and lawns."
"Monsanto, for its part, denied responsibility, blaming the problem on farmers who had failed to apply dicamba as directed on the product’s notoriously complex and restrictive label. Weed scientists at universities throughout the south and Midwest argued that the chemical is extremely tricky to hold in place during the hot summer months, regardless of formulation. By December, several states had placed limits on dicamba use, ranging from Arkansas’ ban on applying the chemical after April 16 to Missouri’s ban after July 15."
"To get Monsanto’s perspective, I talked to Ryan Rubischko, the company’s North America dicamba portfolio lead."
"Rubischko noted that more than 94,000 herbicide applicators had gone through special training for chemical application since the 2017 growing season. And the company has set up a hotline to take reports of suspected off-target damage—only 55 have come in so far, Rubischko said. Every one of them, he added, proved on investigation not to be the company’s fault, but rather damage caused by an applicator who failed to follow the dicamba label or by another cause altogether."
"For dicamba-using farmers and their neighbors, 2018 is shaping up to be yet another long, hot summer." - Tom Philpott 29/6
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