Off-Target Trauma

States Dig Through Dicamba Claims

Pam Smith
By  Pam Smith , Crops Technology Editor
Connect with Pam:
Dicamba injury can cause soybean leaves to pucker. How much yield loss is associated with that injury depends on what stage sensitive plants were at when the pesticide drifted onto them. (Photo courtesty of Aaron Hager, University of Illinois)

PORTAGEVILLE, Mo. (DTN) -- Dicamba drift and damage are taking center stage in the Delta states this summer. Claims that illegal sprays of the herbicide drifted onto sensitive crops have turned into official regulatory complaints that are causing some states to consider tougher pesticide laws.

More than 130 people gathered at a special "Dicamba Crop Injury Forum" held at the Fisher Delta Research Center in Portageville on July 29 to sort out what has happened and why. University of Missouri weed scientist Kevin Bradley said the situation is especially tough since weed resistance has left farmers yearning for additional weed control tools.

"By using the older formulations irresponsibly and illegally, have we jeopardized the potential registration of the new ones? I would have to say yes," Bradley said. "I've gotten calls from Washington and they've heard the reports coming out of Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri and are asking should they even move forward with this," he said, referring to pending EPA approvals on new, supposedly lower-volatility, formulations of dicamba.

"I can't pretend to tell you what EPA is thinking. I will tell you it is on their mind because what has happened in 2016 across a broad geography. And it probably should be," Bradley said. EPA representatives have told DTN they expect to rule on dicamba by late summer and are aware of the current situation, but declined to comment further.

Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and a number of trait licensees sold or otherwise released Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybean seeds this spring without an EPA-approved, dicamba-based herbicide to use over the top of the herbicide-tolerant trait. Syngenta has also licensed the technology, but did not sell any soybeans containing the trait in 2016. Monsanto also sold cotton containing the Xtend trait in 2015 and 2016.

As DTN reported in early July, farmers were warned of legal consequences of spraying dicamba in-season, but some decided to apply existing formulations, such as Banvel and Clarity, to Xtend crops. That decision backfired when some of those sprays moved onto sensitive crops.

Paul Bailey, administrator of the Missouri Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Pesticide Control, told attendees of the Missouri forum that his state has received 119 formal, written pesticide complaints since June 22 from New Madrid, Pemiscot, Dunklin and Stoddard counties in southeast Missouri.

"By comparison, we typically get 80 to 85 complaints statewide per year," Bailey said of Missouri. Although investigations are ongoing, Bailey said the complaints cover more than 39,000 acres of soybeans with at least some portion of the fields within that acreage showing symptoms. Other crops reported as damaged in that state include 3,000 tomato plants, 1,000 acres of non-dicamba tolerant cotton, 700 acres of peaches, 400 acres of purple hull peas, 200 acres of peanuts, 32 acres of watermelon, 9 acres of cantaloupe and 6 acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

"And numerous residential gardens and lawns and ornamentals," Bailey said. "With 119 complaints, my office is working very feverishly. At times, the entire staff of eight has been in the four southeast Missouri counties working 10-12 hour days trying to get to as many fields as possible to sample, photograph and document this damage," he said. Bailey said out of the 119 complaints, 89 investigations have been initiated.

Tennessee reported 44 complaint cases pending and Arkansas has 26 complaints related to the apparent drift of pesticide onto soybeans, according to DTN reporting. University of Illinois weed scientist Aaron Hager said he received his first dicamba injury call last week from a farmer with soybeans injured when a neighbor sprayed dicamba-tolerant seed beans. The Illinois Department of Agriculture told DTNit has not yet received any formal complaints.

MORE STRINGENT RULES

Bailey noted that fines for spraying off-label in Missouri range from warnings to $1,000 per incident. He added that incidents could be cumulative with each field and other factors, adding to the monetary tally. These investigations and fines do nothing to compensate victims for off-label use, a process that usually requires litigation. (See "Know Your Legal Options for Herbicide Damage," by Emily Unglesbee.) https://goo.gl/…

Monsanto received import approvals from the European Union in late July for Xtend, removing a separate worry surrounding the trait. Miriam Paris, Monsanto's U.S. Soybean Marketing Manager, said the higher yield potential of the new Xtend soybeans factored into the move to commercialize in 2016.

"We've been developing Xtend soybeans for over a decade and breeding with them for eight years," Paris said during the Missouri forum. "All of our engine from a breeding standpoint is in Xtend soybeans." She said the new germplasm offers a 2.5-to 7-bushel-per-acre yield advantage above Roundup Ready 2 Yield varieties available today.

"On top of that, we have a lot of agronomic packages for this geography [Missouri], in particular," she added. "We've been breeding and investing in it for eight years. At what point do we not bring forward these really strong genetics?" She added that the company lowered the price of Xtend seed to offset the lack of herbicide availability and communicated that no dicamba-herbicide would be available for in-season crop use in 2016.

Concerns that farmers and custom applicators might be willing "to pay the fine" to gain the weed control has Missouri state representative Don Rone, R-Portageville, planning to introduce legislation in January that would increase fines ten-fold to $10,000 for drift violations when products are used in an illegal manner. Rone, who is also a farmer and attended the meeting on July 29, indicated the bill would also include $1,000-per-incident fines if labeled products drift onto sensitive crops and higher fees if the individual is deemed a chronic violator. Rone intends to fast-track the bill to be in effect before the 2017 growing season.

The 11-member Pesticide Committee of the Arkansas Plant Board also met last week to review policies on dicamba and 2,4-D. Susie Nichols, agri division manager of the pesticide division, told DTN it is not unusual for this pesticide arm of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture to enact rules that exceed federal labels.

Dow AgroSciences is also in regulatory limbo on a separate 2,4-D-based technology called the Enlist Weed Control System, in corn, soybean and cotton. Dow released one cotton variety containing the trait in 2016, but Enlist Duo, the herbicide for use with the trait, is not yet approved by the EPA for use in cotton. Cotton is extremely sensitive to 2,4-D, so Arkansas had previously put April 15 cutoff for spraying 2,4-D in cotton in certain regions.

On August 8, the Arkansas committee will vote on an additional proposal that would establish a buffer zone when applying Enlist Duo (2,4-D and glyphosate) near susceptible crops, including cotton. The committee also is exploring regulations that would link seed containing Xtend and Enlist traits with pesticide purchases in an attempt to control off-label use of more volatile 2,4-D and dicamba formulations.

Other proposals being considered by Arkansas would prohibit all uses of a dicamba herbicide known as M1691 on Roundup Ready Xtend cotton and soybeans. M1691 is Monsanto's DGA-salt based formulation currently being evaluated by EPA. While it is the same salt as Clarity herbicide, Monsanto representatives have told DTN it will not commercialize this formulation. Instead, the company intends to bring forth two herbicide products containing M1691 plus VaporGrip, said to be lower in volatility. A buffer zone is also being considered with these lower volatility formulations.

In addition, Arkansas is considering prohibiting all uses of DMA salt (Banvel) and acid formulations in the state. The board will also vote on a proposal to prohibit the use of any herbicide containing dicamba from being sprayed from April 15 (possible May 1) through September, which would limit postemergence applications in the Xtend system. Research shows soybean yield losses to dicamba injury are higher if drift occurs during the plant's reproductive stages. Dicamba moves more when temperatures are higher and spray inversions tend to occur more during summer months.

All of these changes must clear the proper legislative hurdles, including a public comment period, Nichols said. The group is moving quickly, hoping to get rules in place for the 2017 growing season, she added.

Weed scientists attending the July 25 Arkansas meeting said they have not been allowed to test the lower volatility formulations being developed by Monsanto and DuPont and therefore could not validate how much more crop safety they might offer. BASF's Engenia herbicide, a BAPMA salt of dicamba, is said to be less volatile. However, weed scientists emphasized that lower volatile formulations do nothing to address the drift issue that could damage non-tolerant crops.

In testimony before the committee, independent weed scientist Ford Baldwin said illegal applications cloud a broader issue. "The dicamba applications to Xtend crops were off-label, but the currently available dicamba formulations would have behaved the same had a label been approved. Regardless, these applications provided a real world look at what will happen if the technology goes forward as it currently exists," Baldwin said.

It takes 10-14 days for symptoms of dicamba injury to reveal itself and even then, farmers are often reluctant to report neighbors in such cases, Hager said. "Frankly, what we are seeing in the south could be a preview of what will happen on a much larger scale next year unless applicators have access to much better formulations and use only those formulations in very specific ways," Hager said.

Bill Bader, Bader Peach Farms, Campbell, Missouri, told growers attending the Missouri forum that this is the second year in a row his orchard suffered chemical drift damage. He said tests by the Federal Drug Administration showed no chemical residues in his fruit crop. That's the good news because he lost more than 7,000 trees in 2015 -- a $1.5 million gross loss of sales. Bader told DTN he has nearly 20,000 trees that have sustained injury this year, although the injury has not yet been specifically tied to dicamba. The orchard contains some 90,000 peach trees and the family grows other specialty crops, as well.

"I'm also a soybean and corn farmer," Bader said. "I understand the need, but we need 21st century technology and not something based on old chemistry."

Pam Smith can be reached at pam.smith@dtn.com

(GH/CZ/ )

Pam Smith