The Herbicide Problem in South Dakota
Here at PlantCatalyst® we’re passionate about agriculture and we love to read articles about a variety of agricultural practices, issues and trends. To that end we’ve begun asking writers to submit blogs that our followers might find interesting. This second blog in our series hits close to home as the phenomenon known as “dicamba drift” has become a recent problem for famers here in South Dakota. We wanted to know what’s up so we hired South Dakota based writer Samantha Petit to help us write something about it. The following was written by Samantha and our CEO John Willard III. We hope you enjoy it!
Why all the Recent Hubub Over Dicamba Herbicides?
As any gardener or farmer knows, unchecked weed growth can be lethal to an otherwise healthy crop and turn hours, days and months of hard work into a seething overgrown mess. For the last few decades farmers and gardeners have become increasingly reliant upon the use of chemical herbicides to “solve” the weed problem and keep their crops weed free. But are chemical herbicides the best solution? What are the dangers associated with using chemical herbicides? And what, if any, alternatives exist to controlling overgrown weeds? Here in South Dakota, and across the Midwest, we’re starting to learn some hard lessons about herbicide use and the many potential hazards involved in using them.
First, a primer on chemical herbicides and a little history about how we got here. Research with inorganic chemicals as herbicides was begun in the 1890’s in Europe and had spread to the United States by the early 1900’s. By the 1950’s herbicide use was fairly widespread throughout the United States but the applications were fairly targeted due to the fact that chemical herbicides, if sprayed incorrectly, could just as easily kill the crops they were intended to protect from weeds. By the late 20th Century scientists had developed strains of food crops, such as tomatoes, corn, soybeans etc, that had been genetically engineered to survive herbicide treatment. These crops are more commonly known as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s). With the advent of herbicide resistant crops, the use of herbicides in the United States exploded and by 2014, 94% of the planted area of soybeans, 96% of cotton and 93% of corn were genetically modified varieties designed to be treated with special herbicides for which the plants had been modified to resist.
The main problem with this “solution” to our weed problem is that these crops cannot be modified to resist all chemicals and are, instead, modified to resist only a very specific type of chemicals or ingredients that are, not coincidentally, owned and sold by the very companies that produce the GMO crops. Beyond the obvious problems arising from this situation, scientists are also finding that weeds are becoming more and more resistant to the chemicals found in the most common herbicides leading to even larger problems arising from chemical resistant weeds. Basically, Mother Nature has begun to outsmart the scientists and farmers are now finding that the weeds can no longer be controlled with the chemicals they used in earlier grow cycles. So much for science, right?
Here in South Dakota you might say we’re on the front line in the war against weeds. Most of the field crops grown here are GMO crops designed to be resistant to a very specific type of herbicide, namely glysophate or what is commonly known as Roundup. But like other parts of the country, many South Dakota farmers have begun to find that their herbicide treatments are no longer effective so they’ve begun to explore other “alternative” GMO and chemical treatment combinations.
Enter dicamba, another chemical herbicide treatment. While it’s important to note that farmers have also been using dicamba products since the early 1950s, it’s only recently that companies like Monsanto have developed dicamba-resistant crops which have increased the usage of these herbicide products. But what happens when Roundup ready crops are exposed to dicamba herbicides and vice versa? South Dakota farmers have begun to find out.
Currently many farmers in South Dakota and around the country are reporting dicamba herbicide drift that is devastating their crops and livelihoods. Meanwhile, farmers across the country are making claims that the application instructions are too complicated to understand on the dicamba herbicides, which is leading to these drift occurrences. This has, and should, raise concerns and lead people to question the safety of allowing such a chemical to be on the market to begin with.
Some of these drift occurrences are arising due to incorrect application including spraying in wind speeds higher than what the label states is appropriate, and not leaving a proper buffer zone next to sensitive crops or neighboring farms. However in many instances, farmers have taken the precautions specified by the label and drifting happens regardless.
This is happening because dicamba is highly volatile, turning into a gas at low temperatures. Once it turns into a gas, and in just the right conditions, it can drift for miles from where it was sprayed destroying or seriously decreasing yields of all non-dicamba resistant crops in its path.
Within one week of the South Dakota State Department of Agriculture opening surveys to farmers concerning herbicide drift in August of 2017, more than 150 reports of suspected damage came in, and the department is still in the midst of investigating. Many of the reports that are coming in across the country are being linked to dicamba herbicide products including Engenia, FeXapan, and Xtendimax. Yet it has not been decided on whether South Dakota will ban dicamba herbicides or just suspend their registrations within the state for 2018. Meanwhile Arkansas has already placed a ban on dicamba products.
In the case of produce farmers hit by dicamba drift, it becomes illegal for them to sell their produce because there is no safe level of dicamba residue set forth by the FDA. This has huge financial impacts on small farms that can continue on for years, and organic farms could lose their certifications and in some cases certain seed crops.
With an increase in crop damage associated with increased use of this herbicide, people should really rethink their approach to farming and weed control and what is best for the soil and overall health of the environment.