Editors' Notebook

Our Old Friend Science

Greg D Horstmeier
By  Greg D Horstmeier , DTN Editor-in-Chief
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Let science rule!

That has been a rallying cry for agriculture for decades. It would be impossible to count the number of papers and presentations and speeches and press releases created on behalf of farmers, all saying, in one way or another, "Science says it's safe, so let us do it."

No one in commercial agriculture would disagree with the logic that science should outweigh emotions, fear, or public-relations hype, right?

Afraid of GMOs? Well, science -- and by that I mean real, replicated, peer-reviewed scientific research -- says there are no documented health concerns. Repeated studies say approved genetically modified crops are no different from nutrition or food-safety standpoints than their nonGMO cousins. So there, GMO fear-mongers, go crawl back into your mommyblogosphere.

Scared that pesticides are turning us all into tiny-testicled, cancer-riddled, ADHD-troubled slaves of corporate greed? Science says NOT! EPA uses science, not opinion, to approve pesticides for use. Where science shows there are concerns (allergic reactions, potential for acute poisoning, drinking water contamination, for example), the law requires labels to specifically prescribe how to use the product to avoid those issues. Take that, you organic-only chanting Luddites. Science says you're wrong. Stifle.

So here's what science says about a familiar herbicide, dicamba, that's making a lot of news lately in relation to a new family of seeds that are resistant to it. Science says similar things about its cousin, 2,4-D, which also may soon get a new lease on life thanks to herbicide-resistant seeds.

1. If misused, they will injure or kill a broad range of crops and landscape plants.

2. There are a number of key agricultural and food crops -- tomatoes, cotton, soybeans, watermelons to name just a few -- that are extremely sensitive to these long-used herbicides if the herbicide is sprayed when plants have photosynthetic material present. In other words, from the time they sprout from the soil until they mature and "senesce." You know, the row-crop growing season.

3. While any pesticide can "drift" if sprayed in windy conditions, science says the way these two herbicides work -- the reason they're both effective and that some nonweed plants are so sensitive to them -- means that just a little drift or a tiny bit of spray tank contamination can damage sensitive plants.

4. These herbicides, because of the laws of organic chemistry (SCIENCE!), are highly prone to volatilize. They have an innate tendency to change from the liquid or dry state on the surfaces where they were sprayed into a gaseous state. That chemical fog can then move for long distances driven by the slightest air currents, hurting any sensitive plants in its path like a black blob in a bad 1950s horror movie.

5. That penchant to "gas off" is proven, by science, no less, to be worse during warm, humid conditions. Like, say, any average summer day in farm country.

If you've at all been following our coverage of the dicamba crop injury situation in the Mid-Delta region, you know that the scientific knowledge referred to in my statements above has yet again been verified.

You can't get much better than real-world science, right?

Our coverage, led by Pam Smith and aided by a number of our reporters and writers, has said it appears individuals illegally used old formulations of dicamba on Xtend soybeans. Those beans carry a trait making them resistant to the herbicide. The herbicide appears to have drifted, or volatilized, or both, injuring a lot of crops, from cotton to non-Xtend soybeans to peaches and more.

That's unfortunate, especially for the individuals who had crops or other plants injured. It's also been a black eye for agriculture in general.

Pam and her team for months have been warning about the potential for off-target injury issues when these products are used during the growing season. Historically, they've been used as preplants and burndowns in early spring, when farm country is more brown than green, and any off-target movement finds little to injure. It's also when the weather is cooler.

Our articles and blog items began well before the first bags of Xtend seed were delivered. Pam and others wrote repeatedly about the potential for dicamba misuse because the new seed was sold for planting while the herbicides designed to work with that seed and lessen those problems had yet to clear EPA, or in some cases even to be seen in public.

Anyone who truly believed farmers would have half a tool in hand -- dicamba resistant seed -- see their fields covered in glyphosate resistant weeds and not be tempted to sneak some good, old, inexpensive dicamba into the tank mix and clean things up, must have been herb sampling in Colorado.

Even Pam's predecessor in DTN crops coverage (What was that guy's name again, Hoggmeier? Horshockey? Something like that.), wrote about drift and volatility concerns when dicamba- and 2,4-D-resistant crop seeds were still a gleam in plant-breeders' eyes.

So this isn't a subject, or an issue, that should surprise anyone. The question is: What are we going to do about it? We're told there's a pile of these herbicide-resistant seeds ready for sale next season.

We're also told that new formulations of the herbicides will be significantly less likely to volatilize than current versions. Lots of marketing information is flowing on those fronts. Lots of tough, manly, names are being created for the products that, according to the marketing claims, are scientifically designed to solve the off-target issue.

We, in the farm journalism community at least, have yet to see much actual science on them. University weed scientists, ag engineers and similar independent testers who typically are part of a new herbicide evaluation equation, testing products years before launch, have mostly not been given the chance to apply good, old-fashioned science to the compounds, either, even though we're told the products could be ready for sale in 2017. That's, let me look, oh, why that's NEXT YEAR! How time flies.

Looking at the sea of glyphosate-resistant weeds peppering soybean and corn fields again this year, it won't be a moment too soon. We're all in dire need of a new weed control tool.

If EPA approves them, and they perform anywhere near as claimed, it should help the volatility issue. Drift, however, will still be a worry if the wind is too strong, the booms are too high, sprayer speed is too fast and/or the pressures are too great, the nozzles aren't correct, and a host of other possibilities. Science, and experience, has shown what happens when those variables are out of whack.

Atmospheric science, something we know a little about at DTN, plus the hours in a day multiplied by the acres in need of spraying, tell us the probability for those variables to get out of whack happens more times than we'd like.

All the above focuses on off-target plant injury issues associated with these new technology tools. An even greater concern, the potential to pull a "glyphosate tolerant all over again" -- overplanting traits and overusing the herbicides associated with those traits to the point of creating another sea of herbicide-resistant weeds -- is a subject for another day. Spoiler alert: We'll be covering it thoroughly.

So what to do? Well, when science gives agriculture the green light on a technology, we expect to use it unfettered. In fact, we get pretty dang cranky when we can't.

When science points to the potential for problems, and real world experience bears that out, will farmers, and applicators, and companies creating and selling those products, accept safeguards? Will we agree to err on the side of caution, to truly be "stewards?" Or will we crank up the cries of "overregulation" and of "over-reaching government agencies depriving us of tools for our toolbox?" Will said agencies even step up to play a role in the issue?

Will we "let science rule?"



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8/13/2016 | 1:29 PM CDT
Dr. Dave Frazen, eminent and popular soil scientist from North Dakota State University, has stressed the importance of shelterbelts on many soils in North Dakota, Minnesota and elsewhere. ( https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/soundagadvice/podcasts/04-02-15-sound-ag-advice-099.mp4/view ) Green ash is one of the more important species due to its relative ease of establishment and long life.; BUT as one drives across North Dakota, the results of Glyphosate damage and death to ash trees is plainly evident. One can only imagine the irreparable harm to ash and other species if DICAMBA is added to the tank mix. Farmers are pressed into a timing window (especially the farther North you go) and are therefore known to spray when it is too windy (volatility not withstanding). Air sprayers (which produce a swirling cloud) amplify the damage. As a life long farmer in the Red River Valley of the North, arguments such as "Its a cultural problem" bear no weight with me. In alignment with the scientific demonstration for wind erosion loss to future productivity, the EPA should think twice about approving combining Glyphosate with growth regulating herbicides in North Dakota and Minnesota and elsewhere. This rush toward factory like sterility because of chemical derived rotations need to be rethought in an economic, agronomic and cultural synergy. Responsibility MUST be taken by Federal State and Local players.
JW Bode
8/5/2016 | 11:58 AM CDT
First, thanks for covering this topic. These new tools are needed badly in the weed control arena. As with any tool, generally the greater the power, the greater the management required, and the greater the risk if misused. I feel your coverage of the misuse of older formulations of dicamba has been very fair - and needed. The same issues would occur with older formulations of 2-4D - which is why Dow moved forward with their new formulation first and is following it with seed. Second, I don't work for Dow, but am a supporter of the Enlist Herbicide Program. We have personally sprayed Dow's new Enlist Duo (2-4D Colex & glyphosate) and have been very, very happy with it. We intentionally did some product testing in wheat stubble next to a non-Enlist soybean field to test the drift and volatility. We sprayed in a 10 MPH cross wind with the soybeans downwind from the wheat stubble - which is on label - fully legal. 83 degrees and 71% humidity. We have dead Palmer & waterhemp in the wheat stubble, and a perfectly straight line of non-injured soybeans. I don't know what else you could ask for. We have also sprayed it on Enlist corn and do not seem to have any of the brittle stalk issues encountered with dicamba. I encourage DTN staff to get out to the regional field days that Dow, BASF, and Monsanto are having this month and next. Give the companies and the new herbicide formulations the tough, journalistic oversight that I would expect from DTN, and then I'll whole-heartedly agree with you, let the science decide. Finally, I also whole-heartedly agree that federal and state laws need to be tougher on off label herbicide use. A $1,000 fine is a joke. A $10,000 fine is barely a deterrent. If you really want a deterrent, pull the farmers ability to purchase any GMO seed for three years.