This is the second story in a three-part series on pesticide drift.
As Red Gold Incorporated Director of Agriculture Steve Smith watches cans of tomato sauce whip down the line at the company’s processing plant in Orestes, he says it is his job to worry about the bite pesticide drift takes out of his growers’ yields.
Each year, a handful of Red Gold’s suppliers see yields diminished by drift damage, and he worries that number could mushroom if the government approves crops genetically engineered by the Monsanto Company to tolerate an herbicide called dicamba.
Roundup’s Diminishing Returns
Red Gold last saw a major uptick in drift cases with the approval of another set of Monsanto products, soybeans and later corn genetically engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup. Smith says as the crops’ popularity exploded, pesticide applicators got complacent.
“They got used to being able to spray under any conditions, and if it moved to the next field, so what? That was a Roundup crop also,” he says.
Exposure to Roundup can devastate plants not modified to tolerate the herbicide. It used to solve most of growers’ weed problems. But after years of heavy exposure, many problem plants no longer keel over when sprayed with Roundup.
Companies like Monsanto aim to counter the loss of effectiveness by adding new herbicides to the mix. But dicamba does not play nicely with many fruits and vegetable crops – tomatoes included.
Smith says Red Gold has seen drift incidents drop in the last few years since it helped launch a program called Drift Watch. It’s is a voluntary registry which allows growers to map areas of sensitive cultivation, ranging from beekeeping to tobacco farming, so other growers can avoid spraying them.
But Smith says in dicamba’s case, fostering awareness is not enough. He says the formulas Monsanto has proposed are so volatile, they can waft from treated crops several days after spraying.
He says Monsanto would allow farmers to spray dicamba with the wind blowing up to 10 mph toward crops like tomatoes – a level of protection Smith calls “woefully inadequate.”
“Both the volatility and the direct drift threat are very real with dicamba,” he says. “And it’s not just to our crop. It’s to homeowners and rural gardeners, it’s to landscapes in the countryside, and we believe there’s going to be a lot of people that’s going to see effects from this.”
The Environmental Protection Agency has also not said how much dicamba residue tomatoes can contain and still be safe to eat. If Red Gold detects the herbicide in tomatoes it buys, they will have to destroy the crop.
“And then the claims and the losses will just skyrocket,” he says.
A spokesperson for Monsanto declined to be interviewed because the proposed crops are still under review. In an e-mail statement he said dicamba drift can be prevented with proper application techniques, but when asked specifics, he would not elaborate beyond repeating that statement.
Monsanto is also not talking to Red Gold. Smith says they met in November, but Monsanto representatives told him they did not see the need for further talks.
Monsanto officials told WFIU/WTIU they were interested in understanding the views of all groups, but would not say whether they were still engaged in discussions with Red Gold.
Dow AgroSciences is working on its own varieties of herbicide-resistant crops. Red Gold had concerns about those as well, but Smith says after months of meetings and negotiations, Red Gold is satisfied with the changes Dow has made to its formula.
“The appearance of just completely different company cultures is very apparent,” Smith says.
But Red Gold is not just sitting back and waiting for a response from Monsanto. In May the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to study the environmental effects of dicamba-resistant crops – a move Red Gold along with produce industry associations had pushed for.
The company has also asked the EPA not to approve the crops until it establishes how much dicamba is safe for human consumption.
Smith has also explored options at the state level. Those could include restricting applicators to spraying when the wind is blowing below a certain speed, or making dicamba a “restricted use pesticide,” requiring those who spray it to hold an applicator’s license.
In any case, the USDA will not comment on when it plans to issue its decision on Monsanto’s crops.
Max McCombs and Jackson Caldwell contributed to this report.