The reports of the death of dicamba are greatly exaggerated-but farmers and consumers ought to worry about the death of innovation.
Last month a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that dicamba, which helps control weeds in fields of dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton, unduly threatens conventional and non-dicamba tolerant crops.
It vacated the registration of three new specific formulations of dicamba, but it didn’t issue a wholesale ban of this crop-protection product, which remains available in other formulations and for use with other crops.
I’m in the midst of the dicamba debate: As a Maryland farmer, I’ve both planted dicamba-resistant soybeans and I’ve suffered significant losses when herbicides from other farms have drifted onto my plants and destroyed them. For me, the benefits and drawbacks of these tools are personal.
Crop-protection products guard the world’s food supply against weeds and pests. Farmers need these tools to defend their crops from pests and deliver bountiful harvests. Without them, crop yields everywhere would decline, hurting the food supply and raising food prices.
Before I established myself as a farmer in the United States, I spent two years in Botswana, working with its equivalent of 4-H. My job was to develop agricultural clubs in rural villages, introduce the idea of school gardens, and help students grow their own food for lunch.
I saw up close the unrealized potential of African agriculture-and I came to understand how much the developing world needs the best technology, including crop-protection products. Dicamba is by no means the only one, but sometimes an adverse judicial opinion on a single tool can give other innovations and agricultural technologies a bad reputation, which risks blocking access to an entire toolkit of solutions.
The case for dicamba is pretty simple: It wipes out many of the worst weeds. I’m thinking in particular of the palmer amaranth, which holds a special power to infest entire fields of soybeans. Unfortunately, the weed resists many standard herbicides. Dicamba, however, remains potent against it.
That’s why we planted dicamba-resistant soybeans on our farm this year. Our plan wasn’t to spray dicamba-unless we spotted excessive amounts of palmer amaranth in our fields. Then we’d use it as one of the limited options to control this beast of a weed.
To apply dicamba properly, farmers have to follow the instructions on the label. They aren’t difficult, but they really do matter. Farmers should spray only with the right equipment, correct nozzles, specific adjuvants in the tank (avoiding other additives), and only in certain conditions involving weather, temperature, and other factors. The failure to follow these rules can lead to the problems that the appeals court tried to address: When dicamba travels onto fields of crops that don’t have a built-in resistance, it can kill them.
Last year, we paid a price when other farmers didn’t follow the rules: A herbicide drifted into our vineyard acres and wiped out most of our grapes. We lost tens of thousands of dollars.
At first, we thought that dicamba might be the culprit. A plant-tissue analysis of our grape vines revealed that the damage came from a similar product called 2,4-D-another good herbicide that can have unintended side effects when used improperly.
If we don’t, we stand to lose the crop-protection tools that we all need. The clock is now ticking on dicamba: The Environmental Protection Agency will allow farmers and suppliers to use their existing stocks of the herbicide, but all applications must stop after July 31.
Rather than burdensome regulations and costly lawsuits, the answer to our conundrum is innovation. Let’s have newer and better crop-protection tools, including products that are less likely to drift away or lift and move from where they’re supposed to go.
If we put our faith in science, we may discover that in agriculture, the best defense doesn’t need to become offensive at all.
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