Opposition mounts as Arkansas moves to roll back dicamba ban

The Arkansas State Plant Board voted to roll back restrictions on the drift-prone herbicide dicamba late last week, over the objections of a coalition of sustainable agriculture and conservation groups. The board denied, without a hearing, an organic farmer’s petition to uphold the restrictions.

For decades farmers had applied dicamba, a highly volatile weedkiller, sparingly to minimize drift, and mostly on grass crops like corn that could tolerate it. But in late 2016, the EPA ignored scientists’ warnings and approved the use of dicamba on Monsanto’s new soybean and cotton seeds, which had been genetically modified to resist the weedkiller, as FERN and Reveal reported in November. As a result, dicamba drifted off target—as scientists predicted—and has destroyed millions of dollars worth of crops over the past two years, while also battering wild plants and bee habitat. In October, the EPA extended the registration for two more years.

Arkansas passed the strictest rules in the nation, making it illegal to spray the herbicide between April 15 and October 31, after local farmers, gardeners and beekeepers suffered heavy losses to dicamba in 2017.

But in early November, the Arkansas Plant Board tentatively agreed to relax those rules, after a group of farmers petitioned the board to push the April 15 cutoff back two months. Last Thursday, the board settled on restricting dicamba use only between May 21 and October 31. If the governor approves the decision, the public has 30 days to comment before the board takes a final vote.

At the meeting last Thursday, University of Arkansas weed scientist Jason Norsworthy presented all the data he and his colleagues had collected on dicamba and the damage it’s caused to conventional soybeans and native plants. “Dicamba volatility continues to be a significant contributor to off-target movement in the state of Arkansas in late spring and summer applications,” he told the packed room.

“This is not something that I as a weed scientist can fix. I’ve said that time and time again. This is a formulation problem,” Norsworthy said. He’d said the same thing last year, and the plant board adopted the summer ban. But he was talking to a different board this year.

Organic farmer Shawn Peebles also petitioned the board, calling for an immediate ban. Peebles worries that if dicamba hit his farm, he’d go out of business because he wouldn’t be able to farm that field organically for three years. And though he’d gathered about 60 more signatures than the petition to reverse the ban, state regulators did not give him a hearing. “My name was not even put on the agenda,” Peebles said in an interview. By the time he was allowed to speak, the board had already voted to extend the cutoff date.

“We’re going to fight it all the way,” Peebles said. “I don’t have a choice.”

Leading up to the vote, Freedom to Farm Foundation, a grassroots advocacy group, and Audubon Arkansas mobilized their members to urge the plant board to uphold the summer ban.

The proposed extension will cause a lot of harm to the environment, said Dan Scheiman, bird conservation director for Audubon Arkansas. Dicamba drift endangers native plants, he said, which in turn affects bees, birds, butterflies and other animals that inhabit the agricultural landscape.

And that damage ripples through the food-supply chain. Honey producers can’t maintain supplies because their bees don’t feed on dicamba-damaged flowers. Organic poultry farmers can’t feed their animals when dicamba destroys conventional soybeans. Farm-to-table restaurants have to scramble to stay open when their suppliers lose crops to dicamba drift.

“The regulation is completely on the wrong side of the science,” weed scientist Ford Baldwin wrote to the plant board Wednesday. “If the problem is fixable, it can only be fixed with chemistry and the companies are the only ones that can do it. Instead of being forced to fix it, they have been given a free pass on this issue by the EPA and by state regulatory agencies.”

Critics point to close ties between Arkansas regulators and the big seed companies as a possible reason for that free pass. For instance, Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward’s wife works for Noble Strategies, which lobbies for Monsanto, and his father-in-law co-owns Armor Seeds, which sells dicamba-resistant seeds. Plant board members who opposed dicamba have been replaced by those who support it, critics say. One new member even promoted dicamba in a YouTube video made by Armor Seeds.

“Stop letting the companies baffle you with B.S.,” Baldwin urged the board. “Get the politics out, and make a decision based upon sound science.”