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Court Ruling On Popular Weedkiller Dicamba Upends Midwestern Agriculture


A federal court has rebuked the Environmental Protection Agency and declared that it is no longer legal to spray one of the country's most widely used herbicides. It's causing turmoil in Midwestern agriculture. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Four years ago, the EPA gave farmers a green light to expand their use of a weed killer called dicamba. They started spraying it on new varieties of soybeans that had been genetically modified to tolerate the chemical. And from the beginning, it's been hugely controversial. Steve Smith is chairman of the Save Our Crops Coalition, which was set up to fight dicamba.

STEVE SMITH: The problem is the chemistry of this product. It doesn't stay where it's supposed to.

CHARLES: It sometimes evaporates and drifts into neighboring fields or orchards. Damage has been reported on millions of acres of other crops, mostly soybeans.

SMITH: It was predicted, and it was predictable what the outcome would be.

CHARLES: Several environmental groups sued the EPA, saying that the agency violated the law by reapproving those uses of dicamba two years ago. And last Wednesday, a federal circuit court agreed. It revoked the EPA decision. It was early evening in Illinois, and Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, was outside grilling dinner. She came inside and discovered dozens of messages on her phone. Everybody had questions.

JEAN PAYNE: What does this mean? Can I still use dicamba? What is going on?

CHARLES: That decision has thrown Payne's world into chaos.

PAYNE: Because we are in the middle of soybean production season in the largest soybean state in the United States.

CHARLES: Most soybeans in the country are now dicamba-tolerant. Farmers are ready to spray it. But in Illinois, Minnesota and South Dakota, Payne says, state officials have been clear. The court's decision is the law.

PAYNE: Guys, you need to quit using this.

CHARLES: Other states, though, like Iowa, have told farmers it's still OK to spray dicamba until the EPA tells them not to. The EPA took several days to respond to the court's decision. Late on Monday, it issued an order that bans any further sale of these specific dicamba products. But the agency also says if farmers and professional applicators have already bought dicamba, they don't have to return it. They can spray it instead.

Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.