Pesticide applicators warned Illinois ag officials in 2016 about potential dicamba damage

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Darrell Hoemann/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Dicamba resistant soybeans in rural McLean County on August 7.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture was warned a year ago about the potential crop damage that could be caused by the herbicide dicamba if the department didn’t tighten regulations on the herbicide’s use, according to department documents.

The warning came from an industry group of pesticide applicators during a December 2016 meeting held to discuss whether the pesticide should be designated as “restricted use,” which means only certified applicators can apply the pesticide. A non-restricted use pesticide can be purchased and applied by anyone and records of application are not required.

The usage of dicamba increased significantly in 2017, after a November 2016 decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to approve new formulations of the herbicide for use on a new genetically modified soybean seed made by Monsanto.

Since then, after damage from dicamba spread across the Midwest and South, the U.S. EPA took steps to restrict the herbicide’s use. Five states have taken additional steps to limit the spraying of dicamba.

Experts say the herbicide damaged at least 600,000 acres of Illinois soybeans and reportedly injured trees at Illinois nature preserves and vineyards in Southern Illinois. But to date, the Illinois department has not taken action and has said it has no plans to.

Monsanto, the St. Louis-based agriculture company developed the seed in response to “super weeds” that developed resistance to other herbicides and touted the soybeans as its biggest biotech launch in company history. Monsanto had four representatives at the December meeting.

Jean Payne, the executive director of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, an industry group of pesticide applicators and chemical companies, proposed the December 2016 meeting after other states, including Indiana and Arkansas, had imposed additional regulations on dicamba for the 2017 growing season.  Dicamba, which is made by BASF and Monsanto, is a very volatile herbicide that harms traditional soybeans and other sensitive plants.

Details of the meeting were contained in state documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

“We wanted to have the meeting to discuss it,” Payne said. “We wanted to see what we thought the issues were and how to be consistent with neighboring states.”

But Payne, whose organization includes both Monsanto and BASF, said many officials in the meeting agreed that it was unfair to impose additional regulations because they had never been imposed on dicamba before.

The GMO seeds, which made up about one-third of all soybeans in Illinois this year, were first planted in 2016, but the herbicide was not legally allowed to be used on soybeans until 2017.

In 2016, when there were not major issues with dicamba in Illinois, farmers in Arkansas and Missouri illegally sprayed old versions of the herbicide on the seeds.

The resulting crop damage led to lawsuits and, in Arkansas, even resulted in a farmer allegedly shooting and killing another farmer.

Illinois agriculture department oversees pesticides

In Illinois, the Department of Agriculture’s director can unilaterally make the decision to designate a pesticide as “restricted use,” which requires trained and certified applicators to apply it, while other states, like Indiana, require legislation to make such a designation. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate pesticides.

A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Agriculture, Morgan Booth, disputed that the meeting concerned designating dicamba as a restricted use pesticide.

“The meeting that you reference was not specifically held to discuss ‘making dicamba a restricted use pesticide’ but was more of a general discussion of the new formulations of dicamba becoming USEPA-registered,” Booth said.

However, meeting documents outline the pros and cons of naming dicamba a restricted use pesticide and of the more than 100 entities that are listed as having restricted use pesticides, only Monsanto was represented. A sign-in sheet shows that four Monsanto officials, including lobbyists and business people, were present, despite no Monsanto officials being on the agenda or email exchanges prior to the meeting.

Booth pointed out that the EPA did not name dicamba a restricted use pesticide in 2017.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for making determinations regarding restricted use versus general use pesticides at the federal level. At that time, the Illinois Department of Agriculture did not see a reason to make any additional restrictions,” Booth said.

Nationwide, at least 3.1 million acres of soybeans in at least 19 states were damaged by dicamba this year, according to Kevin Bradley, a professor at the University of Missouri.

While the Illinois agriculture department has not taken any action, the U.S. EPA named dicamba a restricted use pesticide for 2018. Booth said the agriculture department does not plan to take any additional action beyond the EPA’s restriction, though at least four other states have.

Industry group detailed issues

Warren Goetsch, deputy director of the Illinois agriculture department, and Scott Frank, manager of support services for the department, hosted the meeting at the department’s offices.

Warren Goetsch, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture

In addition to three representatives from the fertilizer and chemical association, there was one representative from the Illinois Farm Bureau, three from Illinois Soybean Association and University of Illinois professor Aaron Hager were scheduled to speak at the meeting, according to a sign-in sheet and agenda obtained by the Midwest Center.

Payne said Monsanto argued for the pesticide not to be named as restricted use. Payne said BASF, which did not have any officials at the meeting, was not opposed to the designation.

Monsanto did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In December, Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord said Monsanto would no longer comment to the Midwest Center because it was unhappy with the Center’s coverage.

Monsanto spokeswoman Christi Dixon referred the Center to Monsanto.com/dicamba.
That site contains information about leaf cupping, how Monsanto tested the herbicide, and information about changes for 2018.

Odessa Hines, a spokeswoman for BASF, said in 2017, the company’s focus was to work with states and the EPA on label updates to “develop a long-term solution.”

Before the meeting, Payne outlined the potential issues in a document sent to attendees on December 8, 2016. She wrote that:

  • Dicamba use, especially later in the season, could damage specialty crops like pumpkins, vegetables and vineyards, trees and other non-resistant types of soybeans.
  • Anyone could apply dicamba with “no requirement to show competency or understanding of their legal use and no record of application required.”
  • The herbicide might still harm other crops through physical drift. “While the ‘vapor grip’ technology may reduce volatilization, it does not purport to reduce physical drift,” Payne wrote.

Payne said that the restriction would mitigate “ill advised applications,” provide more accountability, and make it less likely that other crops would be damaged. She also shared a recommendation from Indiana and Arkansas about why those states were labeling dicamba restricted use.

Payne said that without recordkeeping required by the “restricted use” designation, applicators are the only ones keeping records of dicamba use, while non-certified applicators may not be. If a problem arises, then an applicator could be blamed, while farmers without records may not be. Monsanto and BASF have partly blamed the widespread damage to soybean fields on poor application of the herbicide.

Meanwhile, Hager said that he told the group at the meeting that dicamba would damage crops in 2017.

“We’ve seen this for 50 years,” Hager said. “It’s not going be any different. We just don’t know the scope, scale and magnitude (of the damage), but it will happen.”

Ultimately, Raymond Poe, the director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture who was not at the meeting, decided against the restricted use designation.

“At the time, after we talked about it, the consensus of the group was that it couldn’t be justified in Illinois,” Payne said. She said that the fact that dicamba had been on the market for 30 years, had never before been named a restricted use pesticide and had never caused problems, made it hard to argue that the pesticide should be restricted.

Hager, however, said that, with dicamba being sprayed on soybeans and later in the growing season, dicamba was used in new ways.

“This is a different pesticide, with the way the use has been,” Hager said.

Hager said after the meeting, he stopped thinking about the restricted designation because he knew it wouldn’t happen.

Additionally, Hager said that when he spoke to state pesticide complaint inspectors in the spring, he advised them “to buy a second pair of shoes this year” because they would be out in the fields a lot investigating dicamba damage.

Concerns become reality

Illinois, which had the second-most damage of any state, had more pesticide complaints in 2017 than any year since at least 1989, according to state records.

The majority of complaints came in July and August. During this time, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri moved to ban dicamba, while Illinois did not take any action.

In October, in response to the damage reports, the U.S. EPAintroduced new restrictions, including lowering the wind speeds in which dicamba could be applied, banned nighttime spraying and designated dicamba as a restricted use pesticide. This designation, which came at the suggestion of Monsanto and BASF.

It was the same designation that Poe, a 20-year veteran of the Illinois House of Representatives and lifelong farmer appointed to the position in 2015, rejected.

Hines, the BASF spokeswoman, said the EPA’s new label should address issues.

In the past, Monsanto has blamed nighttime applications of dicamba, people using off brand versions of dicamba and misuse of those applying the herbicide. A “restricted use” designation addresses all three of those issues.

However, Hager said he didn’t think problems like nighttime spraying and use of non-labeled forms of dicamba cited by Monsanto actually took place this year.  Additionally, a survey of pesticide applicators by the fertilizer association also found that applicators believed issues were caused by legal spraying of official Monsanto and BASF pesticides in Illinois.

Hager said that dicamba drift was so significant that a restricted use designation likely would not have made much of a difference in limiting damage, and he does not expect the designation to help much in 2018. He said more restrictions, like those in a guide created by the fertilizer and chemical association, would be necessary to limit damage from dicamba.

Booth, the spokeswoman for the agriculture department, said Illinois does not plan to impose any additional regulations on top of the EPA regulations.

While Illinois still has not taken any other steps to restrict dicamba, Payne and the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association developed a non-binding best management practices guide for dicamba usage in 2018. The guide asks farmers to plan ahead and make sure they don’t plant dicamba resistant soybeans next to non-resistant soybeans if fields are to be sprayed with dicamba. The guide also said spraying should cease earlier in the season because later season applications could cause more damage.

Payne said the association has trained more than 1,000 applicators for 2018 and has dozens more trainings scheduled.

“The (fertilizer and chemical association) has been the good guys in all this,” Hager said. “They’re the only ones to address this issue going forward in 2018. I had very little hope that anybody else would even touch this thing, but I give them a lot of credit for doing this and saying something.”

Editor’s note: Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord has disputed that Monsanto will not respond to the Midwest Center because the company is unhappy with the Midwest Center’s coverage. She said that Monsanto would no longer respond to the Midwest Center because “we have not found your outlet abiding by the fundamentals of journalism ethics.”

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