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As EPA reviews dicamba regulations, MO Farm Bureau hopes for quick decision

  

Following a June court decision, the fate of a controversial herbicide is in the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — and the Missouri Farm Bureau is hoping the federal agency comes to a decision quickly. 

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a cancelation order in June to limit the uses of dicamba, used by farmers to kill weeds resistant to many other herbicides to help crops — such as soybeans or cotton in Missouri — grow. Following the decision, Missouri farms were able to continue to use existing supplies of three dicamba herbicides (Engenia, FeXapan, and XtendiMax) through the end of July. 

In the meantime, the EPA is considering whether to re-register certain dicamba products, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who spent time traveling around Missouri last week, said. 

“I know this is a big concern on behalf of the farmers. We’re taking a hard look at that to see if the scientific justifications are there to re-register the pesticide,” Wheeler told The Missouri Times in a long-ranging interview. 

Aside from celebrating the cleanup of the Carter Carburetor plant in St. Louis — which is being turned into a golf training center for the Boys & Girls Club — Wheeler met with faith and agriculture leaders throughout Missouri last week to discuss energy efficiency programs, work on brownfield sites, and agricultural issues. 

In the weeds

Dicamba use has pitted farmers and neighbors against one another for years, Wheeler said. 

“People here in Missouri care very much about it. It has caused some issues and damages to neighboring crops for farmers who don’t have dicamba-resistant [seeds],” he explained. “They’ve engineered seeds to be resistant to the dicamba pesticide which then protects them from other pests. But if you don’t have the resistant seeds, if the dicamba gets sprayed on those crops, it can make them deformed and decrease crops.” 

The EPA is considering whether to re-register certain dicamba products, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler (fourth from left), who spent time traveling around Missouri last week, said. (PROVIDED)

While the debate over the use of the herbicide can end up a tad in the weeds, Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst said there is one universal truth: Farmers don’t have many alternatives to dicamba. 

“We’re really in a situation where we don’t have any alternatives,” Hurst told The Missouri Times following Wheeler’s visit. “We’ll trust that the EPA will do a good job to look at the alternatives and find a way we can use the dicamba as safely as possible.” 

Still, Hurst said he hopes the decision is a swift one. The Ninth Circuit’s order came after crops had already been planted this year, leaving Missouri farmers in a bit of a bind. And as farmers are beginning to till the fields, they are already starting to make decisions about seeds and herbicides for next year, Hurst said. 

“This is nothing new that we have resistant weeds, but we’re at a point in this ongoing battle between weeds and farmers that the weeds seem to have the upper hand,” he said. 

A growing battle 

It’s unclear exactly how many Missouri farmers use dicamba products, but about 40 to 50 percent of soybeans produced in Missouri are grown with the trait and are presumably sprayed with the herbicide, Kevin Bradley, a plant sciences professor at the University of Missouri, told The Missouri Times. 

The issue is with the off-target movement of dicamba application, Bradley said, noting he’s been an “outspoken person” for more restrictive regulations on its use.

“It’s really unprecedented the amount of damage we’ve seen with the adoption of this trait in the past three years,” Bradley said. “It’s pretty safe to say nothing like this has ever happened in our agricultural history with spraying pesticides. … In my mind, we still haven’t seen the ability to apply it without harming others. While I don’t want to see it disappear from the market, I do not think the EPA has thus far restricted it to the extent that it should be.” 

According to the Ninth Circuit’s opinion, dicamba has been used by farmers for more than 50 years — but the plight has been more recent as ever-evolving weeds developed a resistance to the herbicide glyphosate (used in Monsanto’s Roundup products). Genetically-modified seeds resistant to dicamba reportedly first appeared on the scene in 2016. 

That same year, the EPA approved conditional registrations for three agrochemical companies approving the use of their dicamba products; it renewed those registrations in 2018. However, the Ninth Circuit vacated the 2018 registrations in June, saying the agency’s decisions violated the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). 

“For the last three years, Missouri farmers specifically have dealt with historic drought, flooding, trade uncertainty, and now market volatility due to COVID-19,” Missouri Department of Agriculture Director Chris Chinn said at the time. “An overnight decision making this tool illegal is not something that should be done mid-growing season.” 

But since its use, lawsuits have popped up across the country from a bevy of farmers who allege dicamba — having drifted onto their own land — has killed or harmed their crops. And prior to the Ninth Circuit’s decision, Missouri briefly blocked the use of dicamba in 2017.

The battle over the use of dicamba isn’t unique to Missouri. Recent vandalism on one Arkansas farm is believed to be retaliation linked to dicamba regulations.