By Jill Henderson
It was a sunny, late-spring day and my husband and I were driving to Memphis on I-555, which cuts right through the rich delta flatlands of north-central Arkansas. The land here is as flat as a pancake, with few trees or houses to break up the monotony of thousands of acres of soil and sky. Suddenly, a small, yellow plane dropped out of nowhere in a hard, low turn that practically skimmed the paint off the roof of our car. My heart thudded in my chest and it was all I could do to maintain my grip on the steering wheel. Despite the fright, I couldn’t help but turn my head to watch as the pilot leveled out his wings and dipped down below the power lines.
Within seconds, an opaque cloud of aerosolized chemicals emerged from numerous nozzles affixed to both wings, dousing a swath of newly emerged soybean and cotton seedlings. I quickly rolled up the windows and hit the recirculation button on the car’s ventilation system, but there was no escaping the smell or the knowledge of what we’d just been exposed to. Before I could think much more about it, the plane pulled up hard at the far end of the field and banked around for another run. I put the pedal to the metal to try and put as much breathing room between us and the ag plane as possible.
As we drove on down the road, I couldn’t help but keep one eye on the sky, hoping to avoid yet another dousing. While admiring the pilot’s obvious skill and daring, I fumed over what I know are the long-term consequences of exposure to chemicals such as those he was spraying. I could clearly see that the aerosol was not just settling onto the designated strip of field but was spreading and drifting ever so slightly in all directions.
Where else were these chemicals going to land, and what are the consequences to neighboring crops and soils? What about the people that live in the towns nearby and the workers I can see in the fields across the highway? What kind of impact do these chemicals have on livestock, waterfowl, fish and the environment as a whole? And more importantly, what can we do as ecological farmers and gardeners to protect ourselves and those places and systems that are so vital to our way of life?
Anyone who cares anything about sustainable agriculture is well aware of the ongoing threat posed by the use of toxic herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup and its primary ingredient, glyphosate. For years, eco-agriculturalists have decried their toxicity and begged their neighbors to stop using them. And now, the very same farmers who have embraced chemical ag for decades have themselves been hit hard by the herbicides they tend to embrace. In fact, the horror stories and billion-dollar lawsuits surrounding herbicides such as the drift-prone dicamba are proof that even conventional farmers have their limits.
Dicamba is one of the old herbicides that is being raised from the grave of time and stitched together with other creatures of the black lagoon to create some truly frightening herbicidal characters. When aerosolized, many of these new-old chemicals are known to transgress the boundaries of targeted fields and crops through what manufacturers call “drift.” These off-target sprays are not just knocking back weeds in genetically modified crop fields; they are assassinating a wide array of non-resistant crops and plants in neighboring fields, woodlots and orchards. For farmers who didn’t buy into the program, drift is generating tens of billions of dollars in crop losses.
TAKING ACTION AGAINST PESTICIDES
It’s hard to keep track of the many deleterious chemicals being dowsed on the American landscape. An authority on this issue is Linda Wells, Midwest Director of Organizing for the highly respected advocacy group Pesticide Action Network — North America (PANNA).
“The truth is that we can’t say which chemicals are the most dangerous,” Wells said. “We don’t have a regulatory system that prioritizes prevention — and so the chemicals that we know to be highly dangerous are often just the ones that have been on the market for decades and are the most-studied, like chlorpyrifos. If you had asked me three years ago, I would have said that glyphosate was one of the safer chemicals on the market, but now we are finding out that it is linked to cancer”
“One of the new herbicides to watch this year is 2,4-D. China has just approved Enlist Duo (2,4-D-resistant seeds), and so farmers will now choose between dicamba and 2,4-D-resistant crops. This herbicide is linked to both cancer and reproductive harm,” she said. “And while it has been around a long time, like dicamba, we will be seeing a massive increase in quantity used.”
The same thing happened with glyphosate. First, Monsanto said farmers would need to spray less of it than traditional herbicides. Yet during the last twenty years it has gained notoriety for being the most-used herbicide ever in terms of sheer volume.
The allure of near total control over the food and farming industry, and the incredible wealth associated with it, has the likes of Bayer-Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and Syngenta racing for the top spot and swallowing one another in the attempt to become the biggest, most-powerful seed-chemical-drug corporations in the world.
“Industrial agri-business has reigned in states like Iowa since the end of WWII,” said Denise O’Brien, a long-time organic farmer, activist, and current Chairwoman of the Board at PANNA. “The need for chemical companies to sell their products has greatly overridden the safety of the people and the earth. American farmers have been sold a bill of goods that they must feed the world. In reality, the commodity crops are grown for ethanol production and animal feed — not to feed people directly. During the time of growth in commodity crop production, agri-business has mostly gone unquestioned in their research and development.”
“Yes, there has been a lot of good research over the years, but independent scientists who question the corporations like Bayer/Monsanto are made to look like quacks, and smear campaigns are launched to ruin the reputations of these scientists. We have allowed corporations to put profits over health. Sustainable and organic farmers are working hard to change that philosophy,” she said.
“PANNA is continuing to work on pressing short-term issues impacting farmers, farmworkers, and rural communities,” said Wells. “These include specific regulations on pesticides like dicamba and chlorpyrifos as well as promoting our Equitable Food Initiative and working with our international partners to promote agroecology worldwide. We are also always pushing for a more holistic regulatory system that provides more assistance and financial aid for farmers while adequately reviewing and restricting applications of volatile and health harmful chemicals.
“Non-farmers and gardeners, not to mention ordinary civilians, are unfortunately also at risk from chemical drift,” O’Briend said. “The use of chemicals in backyard gardening is quite high, so questions need to be asked of neighboring gardeners about what they are using for pest and disease control and also fertilization.”
“There is a lot of peer pressure to maintain artificially beautiful lawns. The array of chemicals used for pest-free and disease-free yards can contaminate our water sources as well as the inside of our houses. We play, work or relax in our yards and then enter our houses with our shoes on, tracking a lot of residue into our homes,” she said. “The price of a beautiful lawn may be chronic health issues and deadly illnesses.”
“It may take a tree several years of looking unhealthy to actually understand that it is, in fact, dying,” Wells explained. “There are leaf tests that can be done by labs if drifting is suspected, but many times this takes a while for the testing to be analyzed, and the tests are costly.”
Take for example the phenomenon of severe plant stunting and sudden crop death that many home gardeners have experienced over the last five or six years. For a while no one really understood what was happening. Thanks to an intricate online network of gardeners, though, it didn’t take long to connect the crop failures to one of several common denominators: manure, compost, hay and straw.
It turns out that these common garden enrichments, which are commonly brought into urban and suburban gardens from outside sources, were contaminated with herbicides such as Roundup, Grazeon and Clean Wave, just to name a few. Herbicides like these are used on genetically modified crops, particularly as desiccants on grains, the stems of which become straw. The straw is used as animal bedding and ends up in compost, which gets imported into gardens. “There doesn’t seem to be any legal recourse at this point for this “secondary drift” contamination.
Even large-scale operations like Bader Farms in Campbell, Missouri, which lost some 30,000 fruit trees and incurred more than one-and-a-half million dollars in losses due to dicamba drift in 2016, are having a difficult time seeking legal redress for their damages. Monsanto simply argued that it wasn’t they who killed the fruit trees, but rather the farmer who misused their product.
“Budgets and lack of staff are many times what hold back the solving of the drift problem,” O’Brien said. “So far the fines are not steep enough — they are like a slap on the hand.”
Wells and O’Brien suggest that anyone concerned with drift should read PANNA’s free publication, In Case of Drift: A Toolkit for Responding to Pesticide Drift (available at panna.org/resources).
Both women recommend that all concerned farmers register with Driftwatch, which was designed by staff from the Purdue University Agricultural and Biological Engineering and Agricultural Communications departments, with input and support from Purdue University Cooperative Extension Specialists. O’Brien points out that this program is now operated by FieldWatch, Inc., a non-profit company created by Purdue in collaboration with interested agricultural stakeholder groups.
According to their website, FieldWatch’s mission is to “develop and provide easy-to-use, reliable, accurate and secure online mapping tools intended to enhance communications that promote awareness and stewardship activities between producers of specialty crops, beekeepers and pesticide applicators” O’Brien adds that twenty states currently use the FieldWatch technology and that anyone can take advantage of it.
Additionally, O’Brien suggests that talking to neighbors about drift before it becomes a legal issue is a good first step to prevention. “Some farmers are able to talk to their neighbors about cautious use and sensitivity to what it means to lose organic/sustainable certifications,” she said. “I have talked with one of my neighbors and so far we have a good understanding. The other two neighbors just wish I would go away. But the neighbor who listens knows that my return per acre is much higher than his return, and in order for me to maintain that income I cannot afford to have spray and drift knock me out of my organic certification status for several years.”
“Unfortunately for the sustainable and organic farmer, it is up to us to provide the buffer strip around our farms. That isn’t always feasible for some because of land formations and lack of enough land to allow for buffer strips,” she said. “The onus should be on all farms surrounding the organic, sustainable farm, but buffer strips are not mandatory, and farming is on such tight margins that taking land out to protect bees or someone’s crop seems like an added expense.”
O’Brien goes on to point out that the fines that pertain to drift where she lives in Iowa are just not steep enough to cause a conventional farm to take the necessary steps to prevent contamination to neighboring farms. This is among the many reasons she has been involved in the political and decision-making process for many years, and now through PANNA.
“PANNA has been and will be a plaintiff in legal suits against the EPA for failing to properly assess risks to health and the farm economy, and we are always interested in connecting with people who have been personally impacted who can represent others in these suits,”” she said. “We are also working at the state level for more restrictive policies on drift.”
“It is a sad fact that there are too few brave souls in government policy positions who are actively looking out for those who are determined to farm in an ecological and sustainable manner. But farmers, as well as the average civilian, can do simple things to help. “The average person needs to support the local farmers who are growing crops and livestock on family farm size land,” O’Brien said. “And buying local is important in supporting our small, rural businesses, too.”
“There are many small rural towns that actually survived the Walmart-ization of rural America and were able to add jobs and wages to the local economy. However, many of those local businesses cannot survive the Amazon effect, which has made it so easy to be a consumer from the convenience of our homes,” she said.
“Support food that is grown near you and know that it is safe and nutritious. This should be the motto on everyone’s refrigerator.”
Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is the editor of Show Me Oz (showmeoz.wordpress.com), a blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.