Trouble is brewing in the fields of Arkansas, in the form of an herbicide known as dicamba. It's a powerful tool for keeping broad-leafed weeds down, but it's also bad news for crops that aren't resistant to it, which is why people have filed 242 complaints about misuse of the compound.
The stakes are big for agriculture in the state, and dicamba has emerged in a larger conversation about agricultural chemicals across the country. For Arkansas and nearby Missouri, however, the answer was simple: ban this potentially hazardous herbicide before it causes more damage.
Historically, farmers applied dicamba as a pre-emergent, spraying it on the soil before crops actually sprouted. That changed when Monsanto began developing crops that could resist the compound, opening up the possibility of using the herbicide on plants to kill surrounding weeds -- including those resistant to glycophosphate, a popular herbicide.
Now, farmers are straddling a divide: Those with dicamba-resistant seeds are merrily spraying the pesticide on their crops as they grow -- even though they're not actually supposed to -- while their neighbors are experiencing crop damage because the highly volatile chemical turns into a gas in the right conditions and can drift for miles.
A different formulation of the chemical wouldn't be so prone to dispersal, but it's not on the market yet -- and, yes, Monsanto is the company seeking federal approval for a new dicamba product.
Farmers argue that this herbicide "can't coexist with other crops," because it's so damaging to neighboring fields. Proponents insist that it's perfect for keeping weeds down and preventing crop losses on their fields -- and anyone, after all, can buy seeds modified for dicamba resistance.
However, this is about more than soy farmer versus soy farmer: It also affects fruit trees and vegetable gardens, including those maintained by small family farms, organic farms and home gardeners.
The solution, argued the Arkansas Plant Board, was a 120-day ban on dicamba usage to determine the best way forward, and the state's governor agreed. Next, it went to a legislative committee to finalize the decision. In both Arkansas and Missouri, officials felt strongly enough to agree to a ban. And that's good news for farmers and members of the public who are worried about drift,.
This case raises some important questions about the future of agriculture in the United States. It's not the first dispute over disruptions created by genetically modified crops, and it likely won't be the last.
As these crops are approved, as are the specially formulated chemicals farmers use with them, officials need to consider implications for the community. A farmer's' individual rights can infringe upon those of others when herbicide or pesticide drift occur, creating a situation where nonconsensual chemical treatments take place, damaging crops or jeopardizing organic status.
Some farmers and members of the public are also concerned about the health implications of agricultural chemicals. While they are put through stringent testing before they are released on the market, sometimes the full effect of herbicide use isn't evident for months or even years. This is particularly true of prenatal exposure.
By the time the damage is obvious, there may be few options available for treating it. Those worried about human and environmental health aren't thrilled with the widespread use of agricultural chemicals, and many prefer to eat closer to the ground, with fewer synthetic compounds in the way.