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Michelle Phillips

Just about everyone has heard of Roundup (glyphosate), the herbicide made by Monsanto (now owned by Bayer), and spread generously on fields and lawns throughout the country. But, do you know about Dicamba?

When the efficacy of Roundup started to slip, and weeds grew resistant to the product, Monsanto needed a new weed killer, and the company began working to development soybeans and cotton that was resistant to Dicamba, which has been around, but not widely used, since 1959. The problem with the chemical is that it has a tendency to drift in the wind, causing the death of nearby crops that were not resistant. 

This drift caused farmers to engage in arguments with other farmers over the loss of their crops due to Dicamba drift, in some cases whole fields were destroyed by the herbicide.

On Halloween in 2016, one of those arguments over Dicamba drift turned deadly when one Arkansas farmer, Allan Jones, shot another, Mike Wallace, when the two met on a country road to discuss Wallace’s crop damage due to what he felt was Jones’ spraying of the herbicide. In court, Jones claimed self-defense and said Wallace had grabbed him by the arm, which he stated led him to empty the entire magazine in his pistol, aiming at Wallace and hitting him at least four times. Jones’ cousin, who had accompanied him on the trip to the secluded, dirt road to meet Wallace, made a futile attempt to stop the bleeding coming from the multiple gunshot wounds.

Wallace had twice filed complaints with the Arkansas State Plant Board before the confrontation with Jones.

After his death, his family continued to petition the state to ban the herbicide, and a temporary ban, 120 days, was put in place in July 2017. In addition, the fine for illegal spraying was increased from $1,000 to $25,000. A full ban was denied, but the Arkansas State Plant Board released rules and guidelines for spraying the herbicide.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because of a recent court ruling that bans the three major brands of Dicamba herbicides–XtendiMax (Bayer), Engenia (BASF) and FeXapan (Corteva)–that came down on June 3. A panel of judges from the US Ninth District Court in California ordered the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to immediately ban the use of the chemicals.

The petition was brought by the National Family Farm Coalition, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity, and Pesticide Action Network North America, which argued that the EPA ignored not only the problem of drift damaging crops, but also its effect on endangered species. Drift caused damage to millions of acres of crops since becoming a planting staple for many farmers beginning in 2014, and the EPA had taken in 2,708 complaints in a nine month period in 2017 (the most recent data).

Complaints and an immediate ban didn’t seem to phase Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue, who instructed the EPA to find a way around the ban. In response the EPA issued a “cancellation order” allowing the use of the herbicide until July 31, effectively negating the ruling for the 2020 growing season.

Farming is the livelihood for tens of thousands in this country, but should that mean that they are allowed to destroy the crops of others, poison our water and threaten wildlife with their growing practices?

In my opinion, no. There needs to be accountability, innovation and a move away from chemical farming. 

In recent years, there has been a shift away from the “green revolution,” which gave the world large scale food production in the early and mid 20th century. At the time starvation was a problem that mass farming hoped to solve, but now farmers, particularly in other countries, are starting to see the value of growing native crops on a smaller scale to meet food production needs. In the United States there has been a move toward more consumption of organic foods, and less invasive farming practices, yet the majority of our food is still produced “conventionally.”

Do we need farmers? Of course, but we also need them to be good stewards of the land. I think that means using less chemicals, producing food on a smaller scale and embracing innovations that don’t include potentially deadly chemicals. Change can be scary, and sometimes expensive, but the payoff is a healthier society and planet.

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