Damage From Wayward Weedkiller Keeps Growing : The Salt As many as 2 million acres of soybeans may have been harmed by a popular weedkiller drifting into neighboring fields. Arkansas' proposed ban on the herbicide, dicamba, is awaiting final approval.

Damage From Wayward Weedkiller Keeps Growing

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Farmers in parts of the South are fighting each other over a weed-killing chemical. Some are using it in combination with a new generation of genetically engineered crops. Others are angry because it's blowing in the wind and damaging their crops. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Larry Steckel's job at the University of Tennessee is giving farmers weed-killing advice. And his phone is ringing nonstop.

LARRY STECKEL: I get lots and lots of calls - calls, text, pictures.

CHARLES: The pictures this summer show soybean plants with peculiar-looking leaves. The edges are curved upwards, so the leaf looks like a cup. Those plants have been damaged by a weed killer called dicamba, which drifted over from neighboring farms. There are fields with these cupped leaves in Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri. The damage covers hundreds of thousands of acres, maybe even a couple of million acres.

STECKEL: I've never seen anything even close to this. We have drift issues every year, a handful of fields, you know. But I've never seen anything like this.

CHARLES: Dicamba is not a new weed killer. It's been around for 50 years. But it's being used in a new way because the biotech company Monsanto is now selling new soybean and cotton varieties that have been genetically altered to tolerate dicamba. Farmers are spraying dicamba on those new crops. And it's working great, killing weeds that farmers have struggled to control lately.

The problem is dicamba is not always staying where it's supposed to. In hot weather, it turns into a gas that can drift, apparently for miles. And soybeans that have not been genetically engineered to tolerate dicamba are extremely sensitive to it. Tom Burnham, who farms land in Mississippi County, Ark., and across the state line in Missouri, has seen damage in his fields.

TOM BURNHAM: This technology - it cannot be allowed to exist. It can't - it cannot coexist with other competing crops.

CHARLES: Burnham and other farmers have appealed to state regulators in Arkansas, asking them to ban dicamba spray. Other farmers who've bought dicamba-tolerant seeds and want to use the chemical have argued just as passionately for their right to use dicamba. Arkansas' State Plant Board voted two weeks ago to ban most dicamba spraying this year. But the decision won't go into effect until it's approved by a committee of state legislators. Dan Charles, NPR News.


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