Commentary: Toxic pesticide drift hurts all of us

Tribune Content Agency

When I started farming corn and soybeans on our 320-acre family farm in Greene County, Iowa, in 1976, herbicides like dicamba were a go-to to control weeds. Dicamba is quite toxic, but it helped control broadleaf weeds in my corn crop — until it didn’t.

Like so many herbicides, dicamba became ineffective over time as weeds built up resistance. In a typical pattern, the pesticide companies would cook up new chemicals to keep us on a toxic, ecologically damaging treadmill to manage farming the same crops, year after year. But dicamba created other problems, too.

When I sprayed dicamba on fields of young corn, I often saw leaf damage on my soybeans or on my neighbors’ crops — sometimes quite a distance away from my farm. Weeks later, after a big rain, dicamba-laden water would run off a corn field into the soybeans and damage them again. Like many other farmers, I lost faith in dicamba.

Now, chemical and seed companies like BASF and Bayer (which now owns Monsanto) are pushing a weedkiller that includes dicamba to address the latest weed resistance problem for their glyphosate-tolerant genetically modified (GMO) Roundup Ready crops. Their “solution” was to genetically modify crops like soybeans and cotton so a combination of dicamba and glyphosate kills most weeds but won’t kill the crops.

I chose never to raise GMO crops. And eight years ago, I transitioned our farm to organic. Why, then, does dicamba still bother me? Because it drifts through the air for miles, polluting not only my farm and crops but important habitats that keep our ecosystem healthy and vibrant.

As I told one reporter, “Pesticide drift, especially with dicamba, and its potential to hurt other crops, is huge.” I often hear conventional and organic farmers complain that their crops have been damaged, but because of the volatile nature of dicamba, they can’t tell which farms the drift is coming from.

One report in 2020 by the National Wildlife Federation found that since the EPA approved dicamba spraying on GMO soybeans and cotton in 2016, five million acres have been sprayed with the toxic herbicide, “an area roughly the size of New Jersey.” The report uncovered “Thousands of pesticide injury complaints over the past three years in states across the Midwest and South,” revealing that dicamba sprayings are “causing injury thousands of feet from treated crop fields.”

This means that farmers like me who choose not to spray dicamba still catch the toxic drift. That report also showed that dicamba drift harmed many crops including sweet potatoes, beets and other vegetables, and tree crops like peaches.

Dicamba is also hurting bees — vital pollinators that help us produce so many popular foods, such as almonds, apples, peaches and tons of other fruits, nuts and veggies. Already suffering a “colony collapse” epidemic due largely to toxic pesticides, farmers are reporting that honeybees are losing many of the weeds that nourish them, due to dicamba.

Despite all of this, the EPA has failed to do the job we taxpayers pay them to do — protect our environment, and all of us, from toxins like dicamba. In the summer of 2021, while I was out monitoring my crops, the agency found that dicamba drift damaged more than one million acres of soybean crops in that season alone. Many other crops were also harmed, as were endangered species in more than 60 farming counties across the country.

It’s time for the EPA to do its job and prevent all this damage from dicamba drift. A group of farmers and advocates, represented by the Center for Food Safety, had hoped this was settled in June 2020 when the 9th Circuit Court ruled that the EPA’s approval of Monsanto’s dicamba herbicide was unlawful.

Yet more than two years later, these groups are being forced to sue again, because the EPA has failed to stop this unlawful spraying and its harmful effects. The government must protect our farmers and our food and not cater to the pesticide industry.