Canadian farmers haven’t experienced the same dicamba drift debacle their U.S. neighbours have — but that doesn’t mean they won’t also pay a price for this high-profile failure.
Spray expert Tom Wolf says a cooler climate and differences in the way the product is used here have spared Canada the worst immediate effects.
The bill that’s still in the mail is for the overall battering of agriculture’s image as crops and trees were damaged across the U.S. since the product was first introduced there in 2016, Wolf, a partner in Agrimetrix, a Saskatoon-based company specializing in agricultural sprays, said in an interview June 16.
During the last four years there have been thousands of dicamba spray drift complaints in the U.S. injuring millions of acres of crops triggering disputes between neighbours, including one incident that resulted in a murder, a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, and most recently, a court-imposed ban on dicamba applications effective July 31 affecting 60 million acres.
Allan Curtis Jones, 27, of Arbyrd, Mo., was sentenced to 24 years in prison Dec. 14, 2017 for murdering Mike Wallace who farmed near Monette, Ark. Wallace accused Jones of damaging some of his crops with dicamba drift in 2016. Jones shot Wallace seven times during a heated argument.
In February Missouri peach farmer Bill Bader successfully sued Bayer and BASF for US$265 million claiming dicamba drift damaged his peach orchard.
Bayer says it will set aside up to $400 million to resolve other dicamba drift damage claims.
Wolf says while farmers often get blamed for dicamba drift, dicamba makers and regulators dropped the ball by not including an explicit warning about the potential for vapour drift on the product’s label.
“Dicamba is a little bit like firing a rifle at a target and you hit the target, but then the next day the bullet decides to fly in the opposite direction and goes somewhere else and no one is safe,” Wolf said. “That’s vapour drift. It can happen for three days after application.”
Why it matters: Dicamba was touted as an important tool in the battle against glyphosate resistance, but it’s proven to be a PR nightmare for agriculture.
Monsanto, and now Bayer, which purchased Monsanto, and BASF are the main dicamba makers.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the regulator in the U.S. In Canada it’s the Pest Management Review Agency (PMRA).
While the label includes myriad recommendations to reduce dicamba drift there’s not a word about how volatile dicamba can be, Wolf said.
“I’d call it the biggest spray application misplay I’ve ever seen,” Wolf wrote in an Aug. 9, 2017 blog post.
While he says his article should be updated, he hasn’t changed his mind about the label.
“I stand by the article I wrote,” Wolf said. “I think it was the largest mistake in my generation… in the light of the fact that the registrant, the regulator or both have decided not to warn users of its greatest risk, which is volatility. This is a mistake. This mistake has not been corrected.
“I would have never thought that I would speak out against a regulatory agency for having made a mistake twice. But it did in my view, and that’s still my view.”
The first mistake was EPA registering dicamba without the label warning. The second was extending dicamba’s temporary registration in October 2018 without adding a warning. And that, he said, led to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to vacate (remove) the EPA’s conditional registrations for three dicamba-based herbicides: XtendiMax (Bayer, formerly Monsanto), Engenia (BASF), and FeXapan (Corveta, formerly DuPont), in a ruling June 3.
Since then EPA has said U.S. farmers will be allowed to apply those specific dicamba herbicides until July 31.
The court case turned on whether the EPA fulfilled its responsibility to mitigate the risk from dicamba use before extending its registration, said Wolf who watched the proceedings online.
“The Ninth Appeal Court ruling was probably justified, not on the basis of whether you like dicamba or not,” he said.
The court heard evidence that dicamba can drift a quarter-mile but the EPA required only a 50-foot buffer zone, he said.
“The question they (court) had is, ‘how does this address the identified risk?’ And the answer is, it doesn’t seem to does it? These are just facts,” Wolf said.
Iowa State University reached a similar conclusion.
“Specifically, the court found that the EPA substantially understated the amount of dicamba-tolerant seed acreage that had been planted in 2018, and, correspondingly, the amount of dicamba herbicide that had been sprayed on post-emergent crops,” a paper posted by the university says. “Further, the court determined that EPA ignored record evidence that ‘clearly showed that dicamba damage was substantially under-reported.’ The court also found that ‘EPA refused to estimate the amount of dicamba damage, characterizing such damage as ‘potential’ and ‘alleged,’ when record evidence showed that dicamba had caused substantial and undisputed damage.’”
Bayer disagrees with the ruling. The EPA made an informed decision based on “an extensive review and considered all relevant science prior to issuing the current registration for XtendiMax,” Bayer said in a statement.
“This action (to register XtendiMax Bayer’s dicamba product) was informed by input from, and extensive collaboration between EPA, state regulators, growers, academic researchers, pesticide manufacturers, and other stakeholders. EPA understands that dicamba is a valuable pest control tool for America’s growers. The EPA’s informed science-based decision reaffirms that this tool is vital for growers and does not pose any unreasonable risks of off-target movement when used according to label directions.
“Bayer stands fully behind our XtendiMax product.”
CropLife Canada president and CEO Pierre Petelle has more faith in science-based regulators than a court, that he contends, is sympathetic to opponents of pesticides and modern agriculture.
“If you look at who petitioned the court these are well-known anti-pesticide, anti-modern agriculture groups that try to find every potential angle to remove tools from farmers,” Petelle said in an interview June 8. “You’ll also notice the Ninth District Court in California is a favourite for them.
“Basically almost every anti-pesticide case goes through the Ninth District Court first so there is a definite pattern there.”
The EPA makes decisions based on science, he said.
“Yet there in the U.S. they are kind of letting judges… squash decisions made by scientific experts,” Petelle said.
“I am hopeful we’ll (Canada) continue to rely on the scientific approach with evaluators who have the expertise and put on the right restrictions here for growers so they (pesticides) can be used safely rather than fighting things in the court.”
But Wolf points out some of the plaintiffs were farmers who suffered from dicamba drift damage.
He also said he’ll never be accused of being an enemy of crop protection products, because that is his business.
“I am on agriculture’s side and, what is in the best interest of agriculture?” he said. Stewardship… if we can’t have stewardship then we can’t have product. That’s how I see it. Unsafe products should not be registered and never have been, until dicamba.”
However, Wolf was quick to add dicamba is safe to use in Canada and the record of just a few drift issues backs that up.
“This is really more of an American situation, and an Ontario situation in some cases,” he said.
Monsanto was warned by Wolf and other experts about dicamba’s dangers, Wolf said.
During one meeting Wolf said he pointed out to Monsanto three pages of precautions to be taken when applying dicamba is telling.
“I put up my hand and said, ‘you have put farmers in a position of forced non-compliance,’” he said. “In other words, there’s no way that you can simultaneously meet all these restrictions.”
Monsanto reviewed all the 2017 drift complaints and concludes that about 80 per cent were the fault of the applicator, Wolf said.
“So it had a technical reason for blaming the applicator, which it did. I feel that should be recognized for what it is. It’s scapegoating.”
Despite dicamba’s risks, it’s a product a growing number of American farmers need because they have weeds such as Palmer amaranth and waterhemp that glyphosate no longer controls.
There are new dicamba formulations coming that are supposed to be less volatile, he said.
“Maybe there are new adjuvants that can actively protect even better than VaporGrip can,” Wolf added. “We are not standing still here.”