By Jacob Bunge 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will extend its approval of controversial weedkillers for another five years, a victory for agriculture companies Bayer AG and BASF SE.

The agency said Tuesday its reapproval of dicamba herbicides, which have been blamed for damaging millions of acres of crops in recent years, would provide clarity to farmers who say they need the spray to combat hard-to-kill weeds. Tighter nationwide rules around when and where the herbicide can be sprayed on farms will help limit injury to crops and residential gardens, the agency said.

"We have reached a resolution that is good for our farmers and our environment," said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

The dicamba weedkillers are paired with soybean and cotton seeds that have been genetically engineered to withstand the spray. The companies pitch the combination as a way for farmers to defeat costly weeds like palmer amaranth and marestail that have developed resistance to other common farm herbicides, like Bayer's Roundup.

However, dicamba has divided farmers since the companies released the products about four years ago.

The chemical is prone to evaporating and drifting on the wind, potentially threatening nearby fields, and state agriculture departments have received thousands of farmer complaints of crop damage linked to dicamba. The chemical companies and some farmers have defended dicamba, saying that their formulations of the herbicide are less prone to evaporation, and that the sprays can be controlled by following manufacturers' directions.

In June, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the EPA overlooked risks to other crops when the agency last approved the herbicides in 2018, and revoked those approvals. While that ruling came after many farmers were done spraying dicamba for the year, it raised pressure on the EPA as the agency considered granting new dicamba approvals, which were scheduled to be decided by late 2020.

To help protect vulnerable crops, the EPA said Tuesday it would prohibit the dicamba herbicides from being applied to soybeans after June 30, and on cotton after July 30. Those dates are intended to protect vulnerable crops and vegetation in the middle of the growing season. The agency also expanded buffer zones around fields where dicamba is sprayed, and will require farmers to mix the herbicides with an additional chemical agent designed to better hold dicamba where it is sprayed.

BASF's U.S. Crop Vice President Scott Kay said the ruling will help farmers keep their fields clear of weeds and save them money.

Alex Zenteno, dicamba product manager for Bayer, said that adding the new chemical agent would help farmers keep control over dicamba, and that the company would train farmers on the new requirements.

Bayer in June agreed to pay up to $400 million to settle dicamba-related damage claims.

The Center for Food Safety and the Center for Biological Diversity, two environmental groups behind the legal challenge to the EPA's prior dicamba approval, said they would likely challenge this one, too.

Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the new restrictions proposed by the EPA were unlikely to curb damage, partly because many farmers are already done spraying dicamba by the EPA's new cutoff dates.

"It doesn't seem like the EPA has learned their lesson, and it doesn't seem like they are complying with the order of the court," Mr. Donley said.

Write to Jacob Bunge at jacob.bunge@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 27, 2020 19:49 ET (23:49 GMT)

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