Editors' Notebook

Dicamba's PTFE Problem

Greg D Horstmeier
By  Greg D Horstmeier , DTN Editor-in-Chief
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It's hard to know every compound that goes into a herbicide, particularly all the bits covered by that "inert ingredients" descriptor on the label.

One thing I was confident that was not part of any herbicide formulations is a little compound known as poly (1,1,2,2-tetrafluoroethylene). You may have seen that shortened to PTFE. Most of the world knows it as Teflon.

These days, however, I'm inclined to look harder at the labels of anything connected to dicamba and the Xtend, or dicamba-tolerant, seeds. For it seems this new weed-control package is completely lathered in the non-stick stuff, given the "It's not our fault" reactions to the reports of off-field movement and damage related to dicamba.

The latest University of Missouri-gathered total puts the low-end of damage due to chemical trespass occurrences at around 3.1 million acres in at least 20 states. State ag departments have more than 2,200 official damage reports on file. Yes, some of those may be false reports due to dicamba paranoia. I'd counter that number also does not include farmers and others who failed to report but peacefully resolved issues "over the fence."

Every farmer meeting we attend, every conversation we have with real producers and applicators, indicates this is the subject of the year. Still, no one is responsible. To some in the herbicide industry, it isn't even happening. Move along, nothing to see here.

The responsibility-deflection process started almost immediately. In 2016, when industry pushed to be allowed to sell the traited seeds, without the new and improved herbicides designed to go with them, we all held our breath and waited for the inevitable. When crop damage and the angry, even deadly, confrontations around dicamba made headlines, industry response was swift.

"Not our fault. We had meetings. We told them not to use old dicamba products."

Even EPA got blamed, for not approving the improved dicamba products fast enough.

This season, with those improved products in hand and wrapped in some of the most stringent label requirements ever, the damage reports started as soon as sprayers started running in the Delta.

So did the deflection.

There's no proof this is dicamba damage, we were told. It's certainly not the new herbicides, these are improved formulations. It's due to weather extremes, unusual Delta conditions, contaminated Liberty drift, or my personal favorite: Some soybeans just pucker on their own.

Referencing those excuses, one veteran weed scientist was reported to have said, through clenched teeth, "I think I know what (expletive) dicamba symptoms look like."

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Today, we've talked to many farmers who did everything by the book, paid attention to all label requirements, and still damaged neighbors' crops, trees and lawns not just across the fence, but a mile, 3 miles, even 5 miles away. I'm talking about farmers in North Dakota and Minnesota, not just in the humid Delta.

The Teflon response hit its zenith with me during a recent press conference on dicamba with Monsanto's science chief, Robb Fraley. DTN asked how farmers should square the fact that practically every university weed scientist in soybean country was reporting significant dicamba damage, while Fraley's statements to the press told of only a tiny amount of issues, and those he blamed on applicator errors or the weather.

"I'd have to agree that there's a mixed view," Fraley said. "I would point out that back in 1996, there were mixed views from some of the weed scientists about the adoption of Roundup Ready technology, too," he continued.

Indeed, there is quite the history of alternative facts between that company and the weed science community. Allow me to take you on a little mental detour about that.

The story starts at a Weed Science Society of America meeting in Seattle, some time around 1994 or '95, as U.S. farmers were anticipating the first Roundup Ready seed sales. At that meeting, Australian weed scientists presented research that showed the repeated use of glyphosate had quickly led to resistant ryegrass across the wheat-growing areas of "Oz."

I was at that meeting, and heard the Aussies implore their U.S. counterparts, "Don't let this happen here."

It won't happen, Monsanto representatives said sternly in speeches immediately following those presentations. There was no proof U.S. weeds would become resistant to glyphosate, they continued. Ryegrass wasn't a significant problem here. The Australian research had no relevance.

Weed scientists in the room were dumbfounded. But the promise of that silver bullet -- Roundup Ready -- was strong in the marketplace. Farmers couldn't wait to get their hands on it. The idea of slowing adoption by some kind of regulatory action or restrictions on use was deemed downright un-American.

Fast forward a couple of years after that meeting, as weed-control problems started popping up in RR fields.

Each new find got the same initial response from the corporate PR machine: "It's not resistance." Rather, blame was placed on "poor applications," "adverse weather conditions," and my personal favorite: "Difficult-to-control species." In other words, it was the weed's fault.

Soon, those deflected situations became known by names that eventually stuck: Glyphosate-resistant marestail, glyphosate-resistant tall waterhemp, and glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth, to state but a few.

There has never been a serious discussion about how the proliferation of those weeds might have been avoided. The denial continued until the problem could no longer be denied. Then blame was laid at farmers' and applicators' feet.

"We had meetings. We told them to use multiple modes of action. Not our fault." Farmers began clamoring for a new silver bullet, and corporate talk quickly shifted to the latest invention, dicamba-tolerant seeds.

So, back to those seeds.

On Aug. 9, the American Soybean Association announced it was going to step into the current dicamba issue.

"ASA is invested in bringing all parties together to find answers and solutions," that organization's president and Illinois farmer Ron Moore said in a news release.

That's truly necessary. As we've said many times in these pages, farmers need all the help they can get, including dicamba, to battle those now infamous, but all so real, resistant weeds.

We have to find a way to use the technology cautiously, sparingly. We have a large-scale chemical trespass mess with only 25 million acres of the seed planted in 2017. Those in the know, and by that I mean those who will acknowledge there actually is a problem, say at least some of the damage is due to the impossibility of spraying all the acres needed in proper weather conditions. There just aren't enough perfect spraying days.

How's that going to get better when we increase, perhaps even double, the Xtend acreage, as Monsanto is predicting for 2018?

I'm told ASA realizes it needs to work quickly, as farmers will be buying 2018 seed soon. For more on that, see Pam Smith's article on the seed buying dilemma at http://bit.ly/…

Teflon can seem like a miracle for slick, easy post-breakfast clean up. But it's easily undone. One jab with a metal fork while flipping some bacon and that magical coating can start to come apart.

So I applaud ASA and its farmer leaders for starting to poke around into what's really going on with dicamba. Hopefully, they'll do more than scratch the surface on this.

For the latest info on dicamba issues, see "Dicamba Answers" by DTN staff reporters Russ Quinn and Emily Unglesbee: http://bit.ly/…

Greg D. Horstmeier can be reached at greg.horstmeier@dtn.com

Follow Greg D. Horstmeier on Twitter @greghorstmeier

(ES/AG)

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wgf@walnutgrovefarms.com
9/21/2017 | 2:53 PM CDT
Good ,analysis. We may not need this trait on every acre. Why not dicamba districts where there is a real need??