Weedkiller Dicamba Hurts Unprotected Crops, Environment : The Salt When a drifting weedkiller hit America's farming heartland this summer, it damaged crops and friendships. The chemical could also be bad news for other vegetation, as well as bees and butterflies.
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A Wayward Weedkiller Divides Farm Communities, Harms Wildlife

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A Wayward Weedkiller Divides Farm Communities, Harms Wildlife

A Wayward Weedkiller Divides Farm Communities, Harms Wildlife

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This summer in Arkansas, a weed-killing chemical called dicamba drifted across the landscape and damaged millions of acres of crops. And the injury went deeper. It split rural communities. It destroyed friends and took a toll on the natural environment. The extent of that damage remains unclear. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, HOST:

There is one small field on Mike Sullivan's farm that he wishes people couldn't see. There are soybeans in there. But you might not even see them because this field's been overrun by monsters, ferocious-looking looking plants called pigweeds, as tall as a person and bursting with seeds that will continue the plague.

MIKE SULLIVAN: I'm embarrassed to say that we farm that field. But we sprayed it numerous times, and it didn't kill it.

CHARLES: Pigweeds have become resistant to the herbicide Sullivan's been using. The rest of Sullivan's farm, though, is beautiful, weed-free. Those fields he planted with a new line of soybeans with a special superpower. They've been genetically modified - by the biotech company Monsanto - so they can tolerate a different weed-killing chemical called dicamba. This summer, Sullivan got to spray dicamba on those soybeans for the first time. And he loves it.

SULLIVAN: Now we've finally got a chemical, and we can actually farm clean and be proud of our crop and don't have these vicious pigweeds coming up.

CHARLES: Drive half an hour to the west, though, and you can see a dark side of this weed-killing revolution.

DAVID WILDY: It's a real disaster.

CHARLES: This is David Wildy, Southeastern Farmer Of The Year in 2016. This year, he planted the same soybeans as usual, not the new dicamba-tolerant varieties. And all across his farm, strange things started happening. Soybean leaves distorted into cupped shapes. Plants stopped growing.

WILDY: My heart just came up in my throat thinking - oh, my gosh, you know, we've got a real problem.

CHARLES: That injury was caused by dicamba. And the best explanation seems to be dicamba fumes drifted in from fields up to a mile away, where his neighbors sprayed it on their crops. This happened all over the Midwest this year, from Mississippi to Minnesota. Farmers reported dicamba damage on tomato fields, watermelons, fruit trees. Dicamba has been used for decades actually, but farmers are using more of it now. And it's being sprayed in the heat of summer, when it's more likely to vaporize from the fields where it first landed and drift away.

As Wildy drives past his damaged fields, he says this probably will cost him several hundred thousand dollars. But what upsets him even more is what it's done to the farming community.

WILDY: It's something that is so heartbreaking to me that I see farmers taking sides and enemies being made. It's just a situation that is so catastrophic and appalling that I would've never thought I would have seen something like this.

CHARLES: Farmers are battling over who will pay for damaged crops and also whether they'll get to use this weed-killer next year. David Wildy has taken a stand against it.

WILDY: Regardless of how good it is, how much I need it - if I can't keep from damaging my neighbor, we can't use it.

CHARLES: Mike Sullivan, though, the farmer who's fighting that pigweed problem - he says he has to use it.

SULLIVAN: The technology is too good to just trash it because pigweeds are literally going to take the country over if we don't control them.

CHARLES: Sullivan thinks dicamba-tolerant soybeans are so good almost all the farmers in his area will decide to plant them, which means there won't be any vulnerable crops for dicamba to damage. That could solve the farmers' problem, but it could intensify another problem that's getting more and more attention from non-farmers. Drifting dicamba can also damage wildflowers and trees. This past summer, Richard Coy was one of the few people who noticed...

RICHARD COY: If I weren't a beekeeper, I would not pay attention to the vegetation in the ditches and the fence rows.

CHARLES: ...Because Coy's bees feed on that vegetation. He takes me to a group of hives parked between an overgrown ditch and a soybean field. Lots of farmers sprayed dicamba around here.

COY: Do you see this vine right here?

CHARLES: Yeah, yeah.

COY: It's green, and it has little tags.

CHARLES: Right, right.

COY: Those tags should have been blooming during the month of July. As of today, they have not bloomed.

CHARLES: Other plants also suffered. That meant less pollen for his bees. Coy's company has 13,000 hives across Arkansas, Mississippi and Missouri. In places where there was a lot of dicamba spraying this past summer, his honey production dropped by a third. If farmers keep spraying it, he says he'll have to move his hives somewhere else. And he says that's not even the most important thing.

COY: It affects things that people are not even aware of. It affects the butterflies. But all of these insects are in this environment for a reason, and they all have to be able to be sustained for everything to work as the way it should.

CHARLES: Many states and the Environmental Protection Agency are taking a closer look at dicamba use. Regulators in Arkansas have voted to ban most spraying of the chemical next summer. But the governor and leaders of the state legislature still need to sign off on it.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

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