In agriculture, dealing with uncertainty is one of the main challenges that farmers confront each season. Drought, pest infestations and natural disasters are just some of the unknowns that could wipe out a crop – and a livelihood. This fall, the EPA extended their approval of yet another threat to American soybean farmers: dicamba.
Dicamba is an herbicide that is particularly lethal to broadleaf plants, such as soybeans, certain vegetables and flowers. Because of this, dicamba use was confined to grass crops such as corn in the United States since it was first approved for use in the 1960s. That is until 2017, when dicamba-resistant soybean seeds began to be planted in fields across the country. Just as with seeds resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp and the most widely-used herbicide in America, the rollout of dicamba-resistant seeds corresponded with an increase in the chemical’s use in America.
Soon dicamba blanketed not only fields of genetically-modified soybeans, but also many nearby fields. Dicamba is particularly prone to drifting from its application site to neighboring fields. This not only affects other soybeans but also all broadleaf plants, including many vegetables and flowers. Dicamba has been estimated to have damaged five million acres of soybeans in 2017 and 2018, plus uncounted damage to several other crops. The herbicide also destroys the flowers and weeds that bees feed on, and thus may be contributing to the dramatic decline of bee populations. The proliferation of dicamba has also strained relations in farming communities across the country, as neighbors blame each other for thousands of dollars in crop losses.
Due to the herbicide’s collateral damage, temporary bans on dicamba were pursued all over the Midwest and South. Arkansas passed a 2018 ban on spraying dicamba from April 15 through October – the entire growing season. Other states have expanded restrictions on when and how the pesticide can be sprayed. Despite increased regulations from these farm states, in October the U.S. EPA approved use of the pesticide for another two years. The agency claims that updated label instructions will minimize drift and collateral damage. Yet, some scientists believe that the EPA was too quick to accept the chemical industry’s claims, based off studies that some experts have labeled as flawed. As another growing season approaches, farmers are bracing for more drifts and many have simply decided to cut their losses and purchase dicamba-resistant seeds.
The dicamba saga is an example of the toxic cycle in which the chemical industry has trapped American farmers. One of the reasons why dicamba-resistant soybeans appealed to farmers was because of the current failure of glyphosate to control weeds. This system’s reliance on pesticides like glyphosate has resulted in a new breed of resistant weeds that are much harder to kill with the common herbicide. To tackle this new generation of weeds, farmers have to switch to other pesticides that are more toxic, including dicamba.
It is time to confront agriculture’s cyclical nature of pesticide use. A pesticide-resistant crop will inevitably lead to higher pesticide use, weeds and insects will develop resistance to the chemical, then a new pesticide and pesticide-resistant crop will need to be developed, and the cycle will continue, damaging crops, soil, water and our health along the way. In the case of dicamba, this wheel may have already begun to turn. Some researchers say they have seen evidence of weeds acquiring resistance to the herbicide.
As a new planting season approaches, some traditional farmers have even been forced to purchase dicamba-resistant soybean seeds to keep their crop because of drift from their neighbors fields. When the investment has been made, it’s often easier for these farmers to spray dicamba on their own fields – perpetuating the cycle and leaving their neighbors in the same situation.
There are alternatives to an agricultural system addicted to pesticides. Many farmers and agricultural researchers have been developing techniques that can create a more robust and sustainable food system. In the past couple of decades, some farmers have begun to adopt agroecological practices, including crop rotation, planting cover crops and no-till agriculture. If implemented together, these techniques can naturally control pests, combat erosion, and help increase carbon-sequestration in soils. These individual efforts, however, stand little chance of achieving wholesale transformation of our food system so long as the toxic cycle in agriculture continues, encouraged and abetted by a government that fails to protect those farmers striving to produce food in sustainable ways.
Now, more than ever, our state and federal agencies need to work to lift the burden of industrial farming and support agricultural practices that complement the soil and our environment. The evidence is clear that America’s modern approach to agriculture is polluting and unsustainable. Instead, we need clear rules and regulations that cultivate our food system for long term success – not short-term profits. Breaking our reliance on pesticides, including dicamba and glyphosate, is a crucial step in freeing farmers from this cycle and creating an agricultural system that will be able to feed our world for generations to come.
Picture: Dicamba-impacted soybeans. "Soybeans exhibiting cupped leaves, a sign of poisoning by the herbicide dicamba." The University of Arkansas, Division of Agriculture via Flikr, CC-BY-NC-2.0.