Texas wine growers fear new herbicides will wipe out industry

In his vineyard, Bobby Cox uses hand-for-scale to show how long his grape leaves should actually be. Chemical damage from herbicide drift causes leaves to shrivel and suffer from strapping, interrupting the grape productivity.
In his vineyard, Bobby Cox uses hand-for-scale to show how long his grape leaves should actually be. Chemical damage from herbicide drift causes leaves to shrivel and suffer from strapping, interrupting the grape productivity.

As Paul Bonarrigo watched his grapevines dwindle, he was confident that heavy-duty herbicides, probably sprayed on crops by a nearby farmer, were drifting into his vineyards. For the past two years, his 44 acres in Hale County — once sprawling vineyards providing fruit for Bonarrigo’s Messina Hof Winery — have not produced any grapes as they wither from chemical damage.

Other Texas winegrowers have seen similar damage, and they blame it on dicamba and 2,4-D, two high-volatility herbicides commonly used on cereal crops, pastures and lawns. Now, the state’s vintners are alarmed that use of the chemicals may soon expand to include 3.7 million acres of cotton fields in the High Plains, where cotton is being invaded by weeds immune to the Roundup pesticide long used.

The wine industry contributed close to $2 billion to the Texas economy in 2013, according to a report by the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association. Bonarrigo said he thinks the industry is now in jeopardy.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently approved Monsanto’s new formulation, called XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology, which contains dicamba. The agency has also proposed to register Enlist Duo, a Dow AgroSciences formulation that contains 2,4-D.

Both formulations will be used on cotton crops planted with seeds genetically engineered to resist the spray. Enlist Duo is already used on engineered corn and soybean crops in 15 states, and the EPA is proposing to approve it in 19 additional states — including Texas — and extend its use on engineered cotton seeds.

“The approval of these formulations will wind up affecting every vineyard up there,” Bonarrigo said.

The EPA is expected to issue a final decision on Enlist Duo’s proposal by early 2017.

“I could see it basically killing the [wine] industry, honestly,” said Garrett Irwin, owner of the 20-acre Cerro Santo vineyard in Lubbock County. “If we get the levels of damage that I’m afraid we’ll get, vineyards will not be able to recover or produce grapes at any sustainable level, and we’re just going to have to go away.”

But regulators say the new pesticides are formulated to drift less than old versions, and agricultural groups say there should be little risk if cotton farmers follow the labels and keep their spray from drifting off property.

“I don’t see this as being any more of an issue than what we have today,” said Steve Verett, executive vice president of the Plains Cotton Growers, which represents 41 counties and all 3.7 million acres of cotton in Texas High Plains. “I understand there are other sensitive crops as well. No matter what the product is or the farmer that’s spraying, they need to make sure that the product they’re spraying stays on their farm.”

Negligent spraying

Since his vineyards are already suffering from dicamba damage being sprayed in small quantities, Irwin said a massive increase in spraying on cotton fields could affect any other broadleaf crop — such as pecans — that is not genetically modified to resist the chemical. For grapevines, the pesticide buildup can stunt the whole vine, resulting in smaller leaves, grapes and clusters.

Aware of the damage that pesticides can do, the EPA stated that both Xtendimax and Enlist Duo are updated versions of the old dicamba and 2,4-D, and they have new additives that lower their ability to vaporize and drift as gas to nearby crops.

“Dicamba and 2,4-D pesticides are not labeled for use on [genetically engineered] cotton during the growing season,” said EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn in an email. “Under the pesticides law, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, the label is the law. The Xtendimax label requires very specific and rigorous drift mitigation measures.”

But Irwin said it is unlikely farmers will buy the new low-volatility formulations because they are the most expensive. Farmers will probably instead stick to old dicamba and 2,4-D pesticides when they plant genetically modified seeds.

“I honestly don’t think farmers will buy the new formulations when older labels that cost less are available and just as effective as the new labels,” Irwin said. “In short, I think farmers will buy generic chemicals without the additives to save money because the cotton won’t know the difference.”

Even if cotton growers do buy the new formulations, Irwin said, they “will do nothing to correct for negligence in spraying” by farmers who will not follow federal safety precautions.

All of the touted safeguards that the chemical companies are saying will make these technologies safe are really just things that sound good to those who are only vaguely familiar with agricultural practices.

Garrett Irwin, owner of the 20-acre Cerro Santo vineyard in Lubbock County

Bonarrigo said that even if the label is followed, formulations can vaporize the next day and the wind can blow faster than 15 mph in a different direction, so the herbicide would spray to other people’s crops. Bonarrigo predicts a barrage of lawsuits between grape growers and cotton farmers.

“You can follow the label, but policing the changing of the wind is virtually impossible,” Bonarrigo said. “The whole point is that before dicamba and 2,4-D-resistant cotton, before it was even thought of, we already had a major problem with herbicide damage on grapevines in the High Plains.”

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This story originally appeared at TexasTribune.org.