EPA approves dicamba on GE cotton and soybeans through 2025

Dicamba was introduced in 2017 as a potent new tool against invasive weeds resistant to glyphosate and other weedkillers.

The Trump administration approved the use of the weedkiller dicamba on genetically engineered cotton and soybeans for the next five years, saying new safeguards would tame a notoriously volatile herbicide blamed for damaging crops on millions of acres of neighboring lands. Farm groups cheered the continued access to a “critically important weed control tool” and the Center for Food Safety, a skeptic of industrial agriculture, said it “will most certainly challenge these unlawful approvals.”

EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the approval, officially called a registration, on Tuesday, a week before the presidential election, in Georgia, a battleground state, with farm leaders on hand. “It goes into effect with the growing season next year,” said Wheeler.

Farmers rapidly embraced dicamba, using it on tens of millions of acres, after it was introduced in 2017 as a potent new tool against invasive weeds that are resistant to glyphosate and other weedkillers. Just as quickly, complaints arose that dicamba evaporated too easily from where it was sprayed and wafted onto nearby crops, trees, and plants. In February, a federal jury awarded $265 million to a Missouri peach grower for damage to his 1,000-acre orchard. And in June, a federal appeals court vacated dicamba’s registration; the EPA already was considering a new version.

To keep dicamba under control, the EPA will require a 240-foot buffer zone downwind of applications, previously 110 feet, and require the addition of a pH buffering agent. A senior EPA official said many pH agents are on the market and that mixing one into dicamba “makes the product dramatically less volatile.” Nationwide cutoff dates were set as June 30 for soybeans and July 30 for cotton. A 310-foot buffer would be required around areas with endangered species.

“We believe the decision today will be protective of other farmers’ crops,” said Wheeler during a teleconference. He said hooded sprayers were an option to reduce the size of the buffer zone.
Groups representing soybean and cotton growers applauded the EPA decision. “The economic damage that would result from not being able to use dicamba herbicides would be tremendous,” said Georgia farmer Kent Fountain, chairman of the National Cotton Council.

“EPA rushed reapproval as a political prop just before the election, sentencing farms and the environment to another five years of unacceptable damage,” said legal director George Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety in a statement. “Center for Food Safety will most certainly challenge these unlawful approvals.”

The National Wildlife Federation said the EPA registration, “despite evidence it causes off-target injury to crops and native plants, is wildly irresponsible.”

Three dicamba formulations were approved, one each from Bayer, BASF, and Syngenta, said the senior EPA official. Dicamba was used on 46.5 million acres of soybeans and cotton in 2018, according to EPA estimates.

Although Kimbrell disagreed, Wheeler said EPA’s review of new scientific material and consideration of comments by interested groups satisfied the June decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate registrations. The court said the agency underestimated or ignored the risks associated with dicamba.

The EPA allowed farmers and pesticide applicators to use dicamba through July 31, effectively the application season for the herbicide, although it canceled the registration, as required. It defended the so-called existing stocks order as a routine practice to use up materials already purchased.

The fast-growing weed Palmer amaranth already is showing resistance to dicamba in at least five counties in western Tennessee, said weed specialist Larry Steckel of the University of Tennessee in late July. “So, is it time to panic? No,” wrote Steckel in a university blog. “However, it is time to reassess weed management. Herbicide stewardship is now more important than ever.”

The EPA final registration on dicamba is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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