URBANA, Ill. — Pesticides are widely used in agricultural operations and while there are known risks associated with their use, these chemicals also protect crops and ensure a plentiful supply of high-quality and affordable food. Proper pesticide application is critical to ensuring the risks don’t outweigh the benefits.
“Pesticides are an important management tool in agricultural production,” says Maria Turner, Integrated Pest Management Specialist, University of Illinois Extension. “They provide many benefits when used properly.”
Pesticides that are applied incorrectly can have consequences ranging from financial loss for the producer to broad environmental impacts. Overspray can damage crops, landscape plants, or garden produce, which leads to lost income and upset neighbors.
“Additionally, the applicator can be fined by the Illinois Department of Agriculture, or with multiple offenses, a pesticide applicator license can be revoked, which could cost someone their job,” Turner says.
Between 2017 and 2019, the number of pesticide misuse complaints to the Illinois Department of Agriculture increased significantly. This trend was connected to a new soybean technology, which led to a change in the use of the herbicide dicamba.
Dicamba has been in use since at least the 1930s, mostly in cornfields. In 2017, soybeans resistant to dicamba became available, making the herbicide an attractive tool for soybean farmers dealing with broadleaf weeds in their fields.
This new technology was widely and quickly adopted, says Turner. Dicamba was suddenly being used on a much larger scale than ever before in Illinois, which is one of the largest soybean-producing states in the country.
Unfortunately, soybeans that are not resistant and other broadleaf plants are susceptible to dicamba damage. Vapor drift is one of the most common types of misuse. Drift is when a pesticide travels beyond its intended target area, sometimes up to a few miles, when environmental conditions or applicator error occurs.
In 2019, Turner says atmospheric conditions, such as increased temperatures and relative humidity, contributed to more instances of vapor drift than usual.
In response to the increase in complaints related to dicamba drift injury, the Illinois Department of Agriculture implemented new restrictions in 2020.
“Much stricter labels are being used now and there are temperature limits and cut-off dates for applications,” says Turner.
Applicators are also required to take a dicamba-specific course as part of the label requirement. Illinois Extension offers pesticide safety courses throughout the state, in person and online, that prepare applicators for certification exams.
Extension educators also shares information with both applicators and homeowners through newsletter articles. Communication and understanding between homeowners and applicators allows producers to adopt the best pest management practices for their operation while fostering a positive relationship with their neighbors.
Extension also promotes the DriftWatch Specialty Crop Site Registry, a voluntary communication tool that allows crop producers, beekeepers, and pesticide applicators to work together to protect specialty crops and apiaries through its registry mapping program available at driftwatch.org.
“These efforts appear to be working to bring the complaint numbers down,” says Turner.
Complaints to the Illinois Department of Agriculture dropped from almost 1,000 in 2019 to less than 400 in 2020, and 2021 is also trending downward.
Learn more about the available pesticide safety courses at extension.illinois.edu/psep/training-and-testing.
— University of Illinois ACES
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