Weed-killer prompts angry divide among US farmers
Herbicide dicamba is being seen as crop saviour by some and health killer by others
Little Rock, US - When it comes to the herbicide dicamba, farmers in the southern US state of Arkansas are not lacking for strong opinions.
“Farmers need it desperately,” said Perry Galloway.
“If I get dicamba on (my products), I can’t sell anything,” responded Shawn Peebles.
The two men know each other well, living just miles apart in the towns of Gregory and Augusta, in a corner of the state where cotton and soybean fields reach to the horizon and homes are often miles from the nearest neighbour.
But they disagree profoundly on the use of dicamba.
Last year the agro-chemical giant Monsanto began selling soy and cotton seeds genetically modified to tolerate the herbicide.
The chemical product has been used to great effect against a weed that plagues the region, Palmer amaranth - especially since it became resistant to another herbicide, glyphosate, which has become highly controversial in Europe over its effects on human health.
The problem with dicamba is that it vaporises easily and is carried by the wind, often spreading to nearby farm fields - with varying effects.
Facing a surge in complaints, authorities in Arkansas early this summer imposed an urgent ban on the product’s sale.
A bitter dispute
“Dicamba has affected my whole family,” said Kerin Hawkins, her voice trembling. Her brother, Mike Wallace, died last year during an altercation with a worker from a neighbouring farm whom he had met to discuss his concerns over the herbicide. A jury is set to rule on whether Wallace’s fatal shooting constituted homicide or self-defence.
This year, the family says, drifting dicamba has affected some 30 hectares of peanuts and 4 hectares of new varieties of vegetables planted on their farm, sharply reducing profits.
“This is not just a dicamba issue, this is not just a Monsanto issue, this is about how we as human beings treat other people,” Kerin Hawkins said.
She was testifying at a public hearing in Little Rock, the state capitol, organised by the agency that regulates pesticide and herbicide use in Arkansas.
Immediately afterward the agency called for curbs on the use of dicamba, a decision subject to legislative approval.
So large was the turnout for the hearing that the agency had to move it from its own offices to a meeting room in a hotel. In all, 37 people stepped up to the microphone to explain - often in voices shaking with emotion - why they favoured or strongly opposed the product.
Dealing with diversity
“I’m here to tell you we used dicamba and we had a wonderful year,” said Harry Stephens, who with his son grows soybeans in Phillips County. At a time when some younger farmers are struggling to make ends meet, he said, banning dicamba could ‘put them out of business’.
Richard Coy, who raises bees, said dicamba has had a devastat- ing impact on hives located near farm fields where dicamba is in use.
“I lost US$500,000 in honey production and US$200,000 worth of pollination contracts to California farms due to the poor health of my beehives,” he said.
On the edge of his farm field, Perry Galloway points out some of the weeds - dead but still standing, many of them head-high - that ruined several of his past crops. He has since sprayed dicamba twice over an area of 1618. hectares, and says that ‘we had the cleanest fields we had in a long time’.
But Shawn Peebles, who grows organic vegetables, was able to deal with the weed by hiring workers to pull them up by hand.
“It is known for a fact dicamba will move,” he said. If he gets any in his fields - which has not happened this year - ‘I have to destroy the crop’. “Diversity is what made agriculture what it is today,” he said. “It is not just dicamba (and) soybeans; there is organic farms such as myself, there are vineyards in Arkansas, and we all need to work together.”
Activists from Ensemble Zoologique de Liberation de la Nature (Zoological Ensemble for Nature’s Liberation) take part in a demonstration against the weed-killer glyphosate and US agrochemical company Monsanto in front of the Justice Palace in Brussels,...
Workers sort sweet potatoes at Peebles Organics in Augusta, Arkansas. The factory has opposed the use of the herbicide dicamba