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Weeds: A solution that causes problems

Occasionally someone refers to driving through the Midwest as boring. Corn, soybeans, corn, soybeans. If you’re a farmer, it is definitely not boring. We love looking at fields! It’s like a painter looking at other paintings.

I drive around for a part-time job in the summer, so I gawk at a lot of fields. Four years ago, I started to see soybean fields with telltale signs of chemical damage. It’s not unusual to see a field here or there where something has been sprayed wrongly or on a too-windy day. But it wasn’t a field here or there. It was fields everywhere. Cupped leaves, stunted plants, grayish color — “sickly” would be a good word.

This is what injury from dicamba herbicide looks like. The problems I was seeing were appearing all over the middle of the country. 2017 was the first year a new technology was made available to farmers. Xtend soybeans came onto the market with great fanfare. A soybean plant typically would be an easy kill for dicamba. But Xtend beans were genetically modified to be resistant to that chemical: leaving soybeans alive and weeds dead.

The problem was fields that weren’t planted with Xtend seeds. Thousands of fields across the country sustained damage. Often the injured field wasn’t even next to a field where dicamba had been sprayed. It might be a half section away. I’d never seen that before.

Dicamba has been around a while. It was introduced in 1967 as the corn herbicide Banvel. It was an effective killer of broadleaf weeds. It also had the unwelcome and consistent tendency to drift to nearby fields and damage non-target plants. That limited its use.

Farmers have always been aware of wind speed and direction when spraying. A 20-mph wind out of the north means your chemical goes south. But dicamba moves without a breeze, stealthily, picking up and moving in ways that are wholly unpredictable. Volatilization causes it to slide across the landscape. Air inversions are common summer phenomenon that contribute to that.

It appeared this problem was going to be addressed. Along with the release of dicamba-resistant soybeans, Monsanto was going to sell a dicamba herbicide that was formulated to reduce volatility. XtendiMax dicamba would be the solution. Only if it worked in the lab, it didn’t out in the world. Acres of puckered leaves proved that.

It wasn’t just soybeans that were afflicted. Gardens showed symptoms. Trees weren’t immune. There were horror stories of high-value orchards and vineyards being damaged. It started getting attention in the ag media. Soon, it was in the national news.

As one can imagine, this created tension. Near Leachville, Arkansas, Curtis Jones got into a fight on a country road with Mike Wallace. Jones had sprayed dicamba, damaging hundreds of acres of Wallace’s crops. In the tussle, Jones pulled a gun and killed Wallace. He’s serving 24 years for second degree murder.

The new technology was supposed to be the answer to weeds that were resistant to Roundup herbicide. Soybeans genetically manipulated to be resistant to Roundup came on the market in 1996. Roundup Ready corn soon followed. For a few years, you could drive miles without seeing a weed. For those of us who grew up walking beans on sweaty summer mornings, it was a revelation. But there were warnings that overuse of Roundup would lead to resistant weeds. And farmers overused Roundup which led to resistant weeds.

Scientists were skeptical that Monsanto could create a safer, more controllable dicamba. In the documentary series “Reveal,” Arkansas weed scientist Ford Baldwin said he was surprised when he heard a new version of dicamba was in the pipeline. “I started talking about it in 2011, saying unless the companies know something about dicamba that I don’t, this is going to be the biggest train wreck agriculture’s ever seen.”

Baldwin speculated that Monsanto had in its business strategy the likelihood that all farmers would quickly use Xtend seed. If every field had the technology, there wouldn’t be a problem. “The combination of Roundup spray and Roundup tolerant seeds has been a huge moneymaker for Monsanto. The company understandably wanted the same for dicamba and dicamba tolerant seeds.”

After 2017, states put limits on dicamba. The label for dicamba is 40 pages of nine-point font. A deadline of June 20 was put in place for spraying in Minnesota. There have been fewer complaints in Minnesota since 2017. But that’s largely a factor of late planting the last two years followed by an on-again, off-again court ban this year which lowered use. The proclivity for dicamba to move hasn’t changed.

Not surprisingly, within days of the first use of dicamba in 2017 lawsuits were blanketing corn and soybean country. In court documents released in one lawsuit, internal communications inside Monsanto from as early as 2009 reveal concerns that “off-target movement” was expected, along with “crop loss, lawsuits, and negative press around pesticides.” A 2015 document shows that Monsanto’s own projections were that dicamba damage claims would total more than 10,000 cases.

I’ll mention here a significant trend in agriculture during my career. There used to be seed companies and chemical companies. Around the time that breeders started to genetically modify plants, chemical companies began to buy seed companies. Now most acres are planted to seed sold by Dow, Syngenta, BASF, and Bayer, which bought Monsanto. Control of ag inputs has fallen into fewer and fewer hands.

A lot of money I spend every year goes to these giant multinationals. If one is to farm conventionally in 2020, that is a consequence. The local reps and salesmen are friends of mine, and I don’t mind compensating them for their work. I’m less excited to be contributing to CEOs making millions.

I am not a scientist. I am regularly impressed by advances we take for granted. I can look around and find a hundred ways science has improved my life. Yet, there have been miscalculations. DDT was considered benign, and it took a generation to see the damage it caused.

It seems that good science requires a dose of humility, a sense of limits, and a healthy respect for the natural world. The push for dicamba may not have had those.

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