One of our favorite Robin Williams movies is What Dreams May Come. It has some great quotes. In one part, actors say, “Sometimes, when you win, you lose.” In another part, they say the reverse, “Sometimes, when you lose, you win.” In life, both statements are often true, and we think ag aviation experienced the latter this season when the new dicamba products were approved only for ground application.
The biggest news in pest management this past summer was the introduction of dicamba-tolerant crop system to control some of the key devastating glyphosate-resistant weeds, particularly two pigweed species that are threatening the production of soybean and cotton in some areas. Off-target movement occurred last year from illegal applications of unapproved dicamba formulations, and unfortunately, more occurred this year, publicly estimated over three million acres, from legal applications of approved formulations. Despite the labels having many restrictions, something went bigly wrong. Unfortunately, we are in the finger pointing and blame stage now.
Experts are still not sure about all the underlying causes for the widespread drift, but without doubt, the high sensitivity of regular soybeans to dicamba is a major factor. Drift can occur on tolerant crops without any symptoms. The same amount of drift with some less potent herbicides would not have caused any visual injury. Currently, experts still have more questions than answers as to why the dicamba moved off-target. The possible causes include particle drift, temperature inversions, high temperature, short-term and long-term volatilization, spray equipment contamination, water runoff, windblown dust and label violations. Having so many possible causes means the EPA and companies involved cannot fix one or two issues and be sure they solved all the problem.
Even with a huge pre-launch education effort, this lack of understanding after commercialization is not good public relations and created a wedge issue in agriculture. One article describes a meeting of Tennessee growers as equally divided with half wanting to keep the new uses of dicamba and half wanting a ban. Monsanto leadership recently criticized some university research and individual researchers and made the case that the media is not telling the success story of the launch. Monsanto says complaints are the result of a very small percentage of the applications and mostly from user error. They want current approvals to stay in place and are planning to double dicamba seed sales next year.
One legal argument is directions on XtendiMax, Engenia and FeXapan labels are too complicated for users to follow. The labels are long, one is 4,550 words, and for the first time, applicators must monitor an associated website to determine what tank-mixtures and adjuvants can be applied. For example, the new dicamba products do not require a drift reduction adjuvant (DRA), but if an applicator wants to use one, then it must be approved on the website. Strangely, some DRA products are approved but only when used with an approved DRA. What is the point of the first approved product?
Who gets blamed, will anyone pay and what is the future for dicamba are still open questions. In an unusual move, the US EPA only gave a temporary two-year registration for the new dicamba products. The EPA can do nothing and let the product registrations expire. States can also act individually and some are increasing restrictions and even threatening a ban. The one certainty is that regulators are not going to be able to satisfy everyone.
No off-target complaints on this scale have been so publicly reported and debated in our careers. The original bad news that the new dicamba products can only be applied by ground may end up being good news for the aerial application industry. Ag aviation has avoided any involvement in the thousands of complaints, the media uproar and subsequent legal activity.
We do not expect approval of aerial application in the near future, but aerial application may be the only practical way to apply the large areas needed under narrow application windows when soils are likely to be wet. For example, some experts are advocating dicamba application only from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. under very restrictive environmental conditions when the weeds are small. We will continue to monitor the situation closely because we think a better use of better adjuvants can be one of the solutions to improve on-target deposition and keep dicamba technology viable.