Deadly Drift: The Herbicide Dicamba is Damaging Trees Across the Midwest and South

Johnathan Hettinger June 20, 2020

The mural declares Campbell the "Peach Capital of Missouri." But peaches don't grow in Campbell anymore. At least, not the way they used to.

Edi­tor’s Note: This sto­ry was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by the Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing.

Every­thing in Camp­bell, Mis­souri, is peach­es. Peach­es are on the water tow­er. You can order peach ice cream at the Sug­ar Shack on the edge of town. There is even a mur­al down­town depict­ing rows of peach trees and a full bas­ket of fruit that declares the town the Peach Cap­i­tal of Missouri.”

The largest orchard in the area belongs to Bill Bad­er. His 1,000 acres of peach­es have sup­plied gro­cery stores across eight states for more than three decades.

But today, Bad­er can’t grow much of any­thing. His trees have been hit year after year by her­bi­cides drift­ing from near­by farms. Bader’s farm has all but gone out of busi­ness. A cou­ple years ago, in June, Bad­er went with his grand­son to pick a peach, but couldn’t find a sin­gle one on the branch. The trees were so weak they couldn’t hold fruit.

It’s not only hap­pen­ing on Bader’s farm and it’s not only hap­pen­ing in the south­east Mis­souri town of Camp­bell, an inves­ti­ga­tion by the Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing found.

In recent years, farm­ers have been spray­ing an increas­ing amount of volatile her­bi­cides ― name­ly dicam­ba and 2,4‑D ― that are caus­ing wide­spread dam­age to trees, native plants and nat­ur­al areas across the Mid­west and South.

A fed­er­al court recent­ly banned in-sea­son appli­ca­tion of dicam­ba, which experts say is respon­si­ble for the most dam­age, after find­ing the U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency unlaw­ful­ly approved the her­bi­cide in a num­ber of ways, includ­ing by fail­ing to prop­er­ly con­sid­er its effect on the envi­ron­ment. A court chal­lenge filed by the same plain­tiffs, alleg­ing that the EPA also failed to do so for 2,4‑D is cur­rent­ly pending. 

For­est health experts said trees are being dam­aged from Indi­ana to Kansas, from North Dako­ta to Arkansas. Cupped up leaves, the most eas­i­ly rec­og­nized symp­tom, can be seen in towns miles away from agri­cul­tur­al fields, as well as in nature pre­serves and state parks set aside as refuges for wildlife, experts said.

Symp­toms are show­ing up in back­yards, school yards, ceme­ter­ies, forest­ed lands, prairies, land enrolled in tax­pay­er fund­ed con­ser­va­tion pro­grams, orchards, vine­yards, and even over large areas of small rur­al towns,” said Kim Erndt-Pitch­er, habi­tat and agri­cul­tur­al pro­grams spe­cial­ist at Prairie Rivers Net­work, an Illi­nois-based envi­ron­men­tal non­prof­it that has con­duct­ed its own mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram over the past cou­ple years.

In some areas, the dam­age is so severe that tree mor­tal­i­ty is high­er than from the Emer­ald Ash Bor­er, an insect that has killed tens of mil­lions of trees across 25 states, experts said.

Our No. 1 prob­lem on our trees is her­bi­cide dam­age,” said Lau­rie Stepanek, for­est health spe­cial­ist with the Nebras­ka For­est Ser­vice. Stepanek said the dam­age has no bound­aries, rang­ing from urban com­mu­ni­ties to native forests to tree nurs­eries. We’ve got it every­where, unfor­tu­nate­ly. It’s so wide­spread and affect­ing so many trees.”

Trees that used to shade ceme­ter­ies in Arkansas have less foliage. In Cen­tral Illi­nois towns, icon­ic trees that were around at the time of Abe Lin­coln are being harmed year after year. Nurs­eries in the St. Louis sub­urbs can’t sell their trees because the plants are too deformed.

More than 60 areas man­aged by the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources, includ­ing state parks and nature pre­serves, report­ed her­bi­cide dam­age in 2018 or 2019, accord­ing to records obtained by the Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing via the Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act. Some of the parks report­ed wide­spread death of mature oak trees.

Sur­veys of trees in Arkansas and Mis­souri also found dam­age to state and fed­er­al con­ser­va­tion areas. 

State parks and wildlife refuges mat­ter because they pro­vide rare, crit­i­cal habi­tat, said Nathan Don­ley, a senior sci­en­tist at the Cen­ter for Bio­log­i­cal Diversity. 

These pro­tect­ed areas, these refuges, are so few and far between. They’ve dwin­dled so much over the years, and have increased so much in their impor­tance. Any dam­age is mag­ni­fied to that extent,” Don­ley said. Refuges are gen­er­al­ly sup­posed to pro­vide a refuge, and they do in a lot of cas­es, but you can’t sep­a­rate the habi­tat from dicam­ba poi­son. Once it’s in the air, it’s going to drift wher­ev­er it decides to go, whether that’s a soy field or a refuge that pro­vides essen­tial habitat.”

Oak trees exposed to her­bi­cides like these doc­u­ment­ed by the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources die slow­ly, with signs of dam­age vis­i­ble in the foliage.

More her­bi­cides used to com­bat rise of superweeds

Tree dam­age from her­bi­cides is noth­ing new. Trees serv­ing as wind­breaks in fields or shel­ter belts around rur­al homes often get a dose of her­bi­cide dam­age on a windy day or when a sprayer gets too close, said John Ball, an exten­sion forestry spe­cial­ist with South Dako­ta State University.

But the scale of the dam­age in recent years is unprecedented.

For decades, glyphosate, the active ingre­di­ent in Roundup, has been the most com­mon­ly sprayed her­bi­cide. The amount of glyphosate sprayed in crops increased 40-fold between 1992 and 2016. Over the past 25 years, the num­ber of weeds resis­tant to glyphosate has increased from zero to more than 45, accord­ing to the Inter­na­tion­al Sur­vey of Her­bi­cide Resis­tant Weeds.

In response, farm­ers have been increas­ing­ly spray­ing oth­er her­bi­cides to kill these pesky super­weeds” before the grow­ing sea­son. The two most promi­nent have been dicam­ba and 2,4‑D.

But farm­ers couldn’t make wide­spread appli­ca­tions of these her­bi­cides dur­ing the grow­ing sea­son because they would kill crops like soy­beans and cotton.

In order to com­bat this prob­lem, agribusi­ness com­pa­nies like Bay­er, for­mer­ly Mon­san­to, and Corte­va, for­mer­ly DowDuPont, have released new crops genet­i­cal­ly engi­neered to with­stand being sprayed by these herbicides.

Bayer’s Xtend sys­tem, which is resis­tant to dicam­ba, has become wide­ly adopt­ed since it was ful­ly rolled out in 2017, being plant­ed across 50 mil­lion acres of soy­beans in 2020, or about two out of three soy­beans plant­ed in the US. Bay­er and BASF, which are both head­quar­tered in Ger­many, have the high­est mar­ket shares of dicam­ba herbicide.

Since 2017, mil­lions of acres of non-resis­tant crops have been dam­aged by dicam­ba, accord­ing to experts. 

Bay­er did not respond to a request for an inter­view for this sto­ry. How­ev­er, in the past, the com­pa­ny has main­tained that dicam­ba is safe when used accord­ing to its label and that off-tar­get move­ment is unre­lat­ed to Bayer’s product.

Ear­li­er this year, Bad­er was award­ed $265 mil­lion by a fed­er­al jury in a law­suit against Bay­er and BASF where he claimed his peach orchard was no longer viable because of repeat­ed dam­age from dicam­ba. Hun­dreds of oth­er farm­ers have filed sim­i­lar law­suits, and many have the abil­i­ty to become class action suits. The dam­age is also hap­pen­ing at nurs­eries and oth­er spe­cial­i­ty farms, experts said.

This year, Corteva’s Enlist sys­tem, which is resis­tant to 2,4‑D, is expect­ed to make up 20 per­cent of the soy­bean crop.

Don’t think you can get away from this’

But both her­bi­cides are much more volatile than glyphosate. In the hours and days after the her­bi­cides are sprayed, small amounts of the weed killer vapor­ize, turn­ing into a gas and then move off the field. 

Much of the dam­age is hap­pen­ing at the land­scape lev­el, which indi­cates volatil­i­ty is like­ly at play through a phe­nom­e­non called atmos­pher­ic load­ing – when so many farm­ers are spray­ing so much her­bi­cide at the same time that the chem­i­cals build up to lev­els so high they are unable to dis­si­pate and escape the atmos­phere. The weed killer per­sists in the air for hours or even days, mov­ing around by the wind and poi­son­ing what­ev­er it comes into con­tact with.

The pes­ti­cide can trav­el for miles, onto oth­er crops, into towns and even into nat­ur­al areas, said Mar­ty Kem­per, a retired biol­o­gist with the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources. Kem­per has been work­ing with Prairie Rivers Net­work to doc­u­ment dam­age in south­ern Illi­nois, where he lives, and said trees just aren’t as healthy as they were five or six years ago.

Don’t think you can get away from this by being inside the city lim­its,” Kem­per said. My obser­va­tions are you can’t go any­where in these small towns around here to not see some lev­el of injury in these com­mu­ni­ties. For the last two years, I haven’t seen per­son­al­ly, a red­bud in the town that I live in that did­n’t show some lev­el of exposure.”

In response to wide­spread inquiries about the dam­age, Ball orga­nized a sur­vey of for­est health spe­cial­ists to see if they could fig­ure out how wide­spread the dam­age was. The group found sig­nif­i­cant dam­age from growth reg­u­la­tor her­bi­cides in Illi­nois, Iowa, Indi­ana, Kansas, Mis­souri, Nebras­ka, North Dako­ta and South Dako­ta. Lab sam­ples con­firmed that 2,4‑D was the most com­mon pes­ti­cide detect­ed, and dicam­ba was present in about 90 per­cent of sam­ples. For exam­ple, in all of Nebraska’s 78 sam­ples, leaves had detectable lev­els of dicam­ba and 2,4‑D, Stepanek said.

The extent of the dam­age, as well as its long-term effects, is not known, Ball said. But wide­spread dam­age clear­ly hap­pens through­out the grow­ing sea­son. Stepanek said she is most con­cerned about long-term chron­ic expo­sure year after year. Already, some trees are just not grow­ing very well.”

Lou Nelms, a retired biol­o­gist and for­mer nurs­ery own­er who has doc­u­ment­ed tree injury in cen­tral Illi­nois for five straight years, has been find­ing injured sycamore trees in the mid­dle of down­town areas across cen­tral Illi­nois, as far as a mile and a half from the clos­est crops. Lab sam­ples con­firmed dicam­ba was present.

Nelms can rat­tle off each of the places: near the pub­lic library in Clin­ton; out­side of the Adams Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary in Spring­field, right in front of the cour­t­house in Peters­burg; at the large pub­lic park in Pekin; at Kick­apoo Creek Park in Logan Coun­ty; and at the Postville Cour­t­house in Lincoln.

It’s a pret­ty good tell tale of just how far the dicam­ba gas­es have moved,” Nelms said.

Bill Freese, a sci­ence pol­i­cy ana­lyst at the Cen­ter for Food Safe­ty, a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion focused on human health and pes­ti­cides, said the effects could go beyond tree health to humans. Freese said his main con­cern about the spread of dicam­ba for humans is cancer.

Freese has sub­mit­ted com­ments to the EPA and USDA about links between can­cer and dicam­ba, though the agen­cies have not con­nect­ed dicam­ba to can­cer. A study released by the Nation­al Insti­tutes of Health in May found that pes­ti­cide appli­ca­tors who sprayed dicam­ba were more like­ly to devel­op cer­tain types of can­cer than pes­ti­cide appli­ca­tors who did not spray dicamba.

2,4‑D is con­sid­ered a pos­si­ble human car­cino­gen” by the Inter­na­tion­al Agency for Research on Can­cer. Stud­ies have also linked 2,4‑D to endocrine dis­rup­tion, dis­turb­ing estro­gen, andro­gen and thy­roid hormones.

This Illi­nois Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources field entry details dam­age caused by herbicides.

Trees are just stuck there, get­ting sprayed year after year’

Detect­ing where the dam­age came from is often dif­fi­cult, Ball said. That’s because a lot of times, the chem­i­cals don’t come from just one field. They come from every field in the area, tes­ti­fied Uni­ver­si­ty of Arkansas pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of weed sci­ence Ford Bald­win in the Bad­er peach farm tri­al in fed­er­al court in February.

There’s a scenic dri­ve in the mid­dle of the 2,154-acre Big Cane Con­ser­va­tion Area in south­ern Mis­souri. While the area is sur­round­ed by fields, the scenic dri­ve is well insu­lat­ed, said Rob­bie Doer­hoff, a for­est health spe­cial­ist with the Mis­souri Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion. One day last sum­mer, Doer­hoff took the dri­ve and con­duct­ed a ran­dom sam­pling of leaves that weren’t ter­ri­bly symp­to­matic.” Lab results found lev­els of 2,4‑D and dicam­ba, she said.

We don’t know what that means,” Doer­hoff said. As far as stress on the tree long-term, we have no idea what that means. The trees were all green, and the aver­age per­son wouldn’t have noticed they looked weird.”

But oth­er trees showed symp­toms, and it could mat­ter for the forest’s long-term health, she said.

Big Cane is there because 99 per­cent of the habi­tat that used to be there ― the swampy areas, the low-lying for­est ― is gone,” Doer­hoff said. We have lit­tle patch­es here and there set aside for wildlife species. Poten­tial­ly, these her­bi­cides are degrad­ing these small areas we have.”

Doer­hoff, who nor­mal­ly focus­es on insects in trees, said she could see her­bi­cides hav­ing a sig­nif­i­cant effect on species like cater­pil­lars that are sen­si­tive to which leaves they eat.

Few­er insects means less food for birds, said Dan Scheiman, bird con­ser­va­tion direc­tor of the Arkansas Audubon Soci­ety. Scheiman earned his Ph.D. from Pur­due Uni­ver­si­ty and has been bird­ing for more than 30 years.

Scheiman set up a vol­un­teer mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram in 2019 that found 243 instances of dam­age across 17 coun­ties inside nat­ur­al wildlife refuges, nat­ur­al areas and church­yards. Scheiman believes dicam­ba is large­ly to blame in Arkansas.

The wor­ry is that trees and wild­flower species will be less pro­duc­tive, and the seeds and fruits that birds need will dis­ap­pear, Scheiman said.

He point­ed out that soy­beans are an annu­al plant, while trees are perennials.

Trees are just stuck there, get­ting sprayed year after year,” Scheiman said.

Doer­hoff said it all comes back to her­bi­cides being used more than in the past.

Dicam­ba and 2,4‑D have been around for a long time, but they’ve been used dif­fer­ent­ly.” Doer­hoff said. There has nev­er been a push to study them in a new way, and they haven’t been used when mature trees are leafed out. Now it’s a prob­lem and we don’t have any data.”

One of the best datasets might just be places like Bader’s peach farm, where yields have been doc­u­ment­ed year after year for decades. In the ear­ly 2000s, Bad­er aver­aged yields over 150,000 bushels. In 2018, his trees pro­duced 12,000 bushels.

In Camp­bell, just miles from Bader’s farm, there is a mur­al paint­ed on the side of a down­town build­ing. In the paint­ing, cot­ton farm­ers coex­ist along­side peach trees. But today, that mur­al is more of a por­tray­al of a time gone past than the real­i­ty of the small town of about 2,000 peo­ple in Missouri’s south­ern pan­han­dle, near the state’s bor­der with Arkansas.

Peach­es don’t grow in Camp­bell any­more. At least, not the way they used to.

Edi­tor’s Note: The Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing is a non­prof­it, online news­room offer­ing inves­tiga­tive and enter­prise cov­er­age of agribusi­ness, Big Ag and relat­ed issues through data analy­sis, visu­al­iza­tions, in-depth reports and inter­ac­tive web tools. Vis­it us online at www​.inves​ti​gatemid​west​.org

Johnathan Het­tinger is a jour­nal­ist based in Liv­ingston, Mon­tana. Orig­i­nal­ly from Cen­tral Illi­nois and a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois, he has worked at the Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing, the Liv­ingston Enter­prise and the (Cham­paign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Con­tact Johnathan at jhett93@​gmail.​com and fol­low him on Twit­ter @jhett93.
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