Arkansas Defies Monsanto, Moves To Ban Rogue Weedkiller : The Salt Arkansas regulators are on a collision course with Monsanto, voting to ban use during the growing season of a drift-prone herbicide that Monsanto says is farmers' best hope for weed-free fields.
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Arkansas Defies Monsanto, Moves To Ban Rogue Weedkiller

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Arkansas Defies Monsanto, Moves To Ban Rogue Weedkiller

Arkansas Defies Monsanto, Moves To Ban Rogue Weedkiller

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. When you hear scandal of the year, you're probably not thinking agriculture. But millions of acres of crops have been damaged by a rogue weed killer that drifted over from nearby fields. One of the companies that's backing the weed killer is Monsanto. And the state of Arkansas is close to banning the use of this weed killer. NPR's Dan Charles is with us. Hey there, Dan.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: OK. So first of all, catch us up on the news. There was an important vote about all this in Arkansas last night.

CHARLES: Right. So a state - the state plant board, which is a committee of private citizens connected to agriculture with authority to regulate pesticides - they voted yesterday to ban the use of this particular herbicide called dicamba during the summer time - basically, from mid-April through November - because they say, we can't control this herbicide. It drifts into neighboring fields.

GREENE: OK. You've got to step back for me now for people who haven't followed this at all and explain what this pesticide is and how all these crops have been getting damaged and how big a deal this is.

CHARLES: Right. This is kind of a case where a new technology gets rolled out before, apparently, people fully understand what it's - how it's going to behave. It's a new version of a - you know, an approach to wiping out weeds that Monsanto pioneered 20 years ago, where you genetically modify crops so they can tolerate, you know, a herbicide, a weed killer. Makes it easier for farmers to spray the fields, kill the weeds. And their crops are safe. They did this first with Roundup, known as glyphosate. Roundup doesn't work as well because a lot of weeds have evolved resistance to it. So there's a new one. It's called dicamba. It's an old herbicide. But dicamba has this problem people knew about. It tends to drift, you know, from the place you sprayed it into neighboring fields.

GREENE: Neighboring fields where crops are not immune to it.

CHARLES: Exactly - where crops are sensitive to this. And this isn't just - you know, when they started spraying this year, the complaints rolled in. I mean, it was most severe in Arkansas. But all across the Midwest, there are, you know, a couple of thousand complaints. Three million acres, apparently, have been damaged - mostly soybeans but also watermelon farms, vineyards, fruit trees, lots of different crops.

GREENE: So this must have farmers, I mean, furious.

CHARLES: Absolutely. So I've actually been down here in Arkansas for the past week, talking to farmers. And, you know, they talk about how it's kind of divided communities. It's ruined friendships. It's, you know - it turned acquaintances into adversaries. And the thing that makes people, you know, really angry, it seems like, is they're - they've had this - they know what herbicide drift looks like. And they've dealt with it before. But in this case, it's drifting, and they sometimes don't even know where it comes from. And so it's just - you know, they're pretty upset.

GREENE: Well - and is Arkansas alone in trying to stop this now, or are there other states that might follow suit?

CHARLES: It's alone right now. They've had this process - well, because it's most severe here. And they've come to this conclusion that, you know, they can't control this herbicide. And so they're just going to ban it for the summer. It's really not clear what other states are going to do. It's not clear what the federal EPA is going to do. Monsanto, for its part, says this is not a problem if farmers use it correctly. We just train farmers, and the problems will go away.

GREENE: NPR's Dan Charles talking to us from Forrest City, Ark. Dan, thanks.

CHARLES: Thank you.

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