Dicamba, has thrust Bradley and a half-dozen other university weed scientists into the unfamiliar role of whistleblower, confronting what they believe are misleading
and scientifically unfounded claims by one of the country's biggest seed and pesticide companies: Monsanto.
The tensions between Monsanto and the nation's weed scientists actually began several years ago, when Monsanto first moved
to make dicamba the centerpiece of a new weedkilling strategy. The company tweaked the genes in soybeans and cotton and
created genetically modified varieties of those crops that can tolerate doses of dicamba. (Normally, dicamba kills those crops.)
This allowed farmers to spray the weedkiller directly on their soybean or cotton plants, killing the weeds while their crops survived.
It's an approach that Monsanto pioneered with crops that were genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate, or Roundup - which is now known to cause cancer.
After two decades of heavy exposure to glyphosate, however, devastating weeds like Palmer amaranth, or pigweed, developed resistance to it. So farmers are looking for new weedkilling tools.
Dicamba, however, has a well-known defect. It's volatile; it tends to evaporate from the soil or vegetation where it has been sprayed, creating a cloud of plant-killing vapor that can spread in unpredictable directions. It happens more in hot weather, and Monsanto's new strategy inevitably would mean spraying dicamba in the heat of summer.
Arkansas announced a 120-day ban of the weed killer this summer, and it is considering barring its use next year after mid-April. Missouri briefly barred its sale in July. And the Environmental Protection Agency, not known for its aggressiveness under President Trump, is weighing its own action.
“I’m a fan of Monsanto. I’ve bought a lot of their products,” said Brad Williams, a Missouri farmer. “I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that there would be some kind of evil nefarious plot to put a defective product out there intentionally.”
Yet he has been dismayed both by damage to his soybean crops, which were within a wide area of farmland harmed by dicamba, and by the impact even to trees on his property. Leaves, he said, were “so deformed you couldn’t even really identify the differences between them.”
For years, Steve Smith, once a member of a dicamba advisory panel set up by Monsanto, urged the company to change course. Mr. Smith, the head of agriculture at Red Gold, a tomato processor based in Indiana, aired his concerns at a congressional hearing in 2010.
“The widespread use of dicamba is incompatible with Midwestern agriculture,” he said in his testimony. “Even the best, the most conscientious farmers cannot control where this weed killer will end up.”
Monsanto eventually removed him from its advisory panel, citing what it called a “conflict of interest.” Mr. Smith had helped start a coalition of farm interests critical of dicamba and 2,4-D.
Farmers say they face a difficult choice — either buy the new genetically modified seeds or run the risk that their soybeans would be damaged more by a neighbor’s spraying of weed killers than by the weeds themselves.
“If you don’t buy Xtend, you’re going to be hurt,” said Michael Kemp, a Missouri farmer, referring to the brand name of Monsanto’s seeds.
The leaves on his soybeans puckered and curled after they were exposed to dicamba, a problem known as cupping. The cost will not be clear until after harvest.
“You’re going to have to buy their product because their chemical is drifting around,” he said, adding that growing crops that are not modified is becoming impossible. “The people who are growing non-G.M.O., which I did for a while, they’re just left out in left field, I guess.”
Because genetically modified crops allow dicamba to be sprayed later in the year, after crops emerge from the ground, and in hotter and more humid weather, the chemical is susceptible to what is known as “volatility” — it can turn into a gas and drift onto whatever happens to be nearby.
While Monsanto and BASF modified the new versions of the herbicide they are selling, they have not entirely solved the problem. So much dicamba is being used that even a small percentage of drift can cause widespread damage.
Arkansas and Missouri said they were still investigating complaints. The Missouri Department of Agriculture referred questions on the extent of the crop damage to Kevin Bradley, a weed scientist at the University of Missouri, who said more than three million acres had been affected.
In an email, he said that particles drifting in the wind during spraying “may have been the largest reason, but not by much,” adding, “I believe similar or perhaps slightly lower percentages can be attributed to volatility.”
“We may be rural hicks, but we’re not stupid,” said Kenneth Qualls, an Arkansas farmer who is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits. “We know how to apply chemicals. They are going to blame it on the farmer to reduce their liability.”
Health risks are also a contentious topic. The industry says dicamba and 2,4-D are long established. But Charles Benbrook, a weed scientist partly funded by the organic industry, said, “For both dicamba and 2,4-D, the reproductive risks and birth defects” are “most worrisome.”
“It’s really divided the farming community,” Mr. Qualls said. The husband of one of his cousins was shot dead in a dispute over dicamba drift, underlining the bitterness of the issue. A farmhand has been charged with murder in the case.
“It shocked the whole community and really the whole state,” Mr. Qualls said, adding that he was surprised there hadn’t been more violence.
“Some of these people who got victimized by this product are probably going to go out of business because of it,” he said. “They’ll have to put up their equipment for auction, and the people bidding on it will be the ones who put them out of business.”
Bayer AG investors were surprised to learn about the thousands of farmers lining up before U.S. courts to argue that Roundup — the blockbuster weedkiller the German company recently acquired when it bought Monsanto Co. — had given them cancer. But Roundup is hardly the only chemical in Monsanto’s portfolio carrying legal risks.
There are also lawsuits aplenty for dicamba, its next best-selling herbicide, which U.S. farmers are spraying on about 50 million acres of soybean and cotton crops this summer to combat weeds that have become resistant to Roundup.
Dicamba has a tendency to vaporize after being sprayed and drift onto neighboring fields, harming crops and other plants that aren’t genetically modified to withstand its effects. More than 1 million soybean acres are claimed to have been damaged this year as of mid-July, and last summer, that number was more than 3 million.
Dicamba is to be a magnet for class-action lawsuits. These could cover thousands of plaintiffs, according to Tiffany Dowell Lashmet, an agricultural law specialist at Texas A&M University. Currently, 35 of 37 cases with 181 named plaintiffs have been consolidated into a federal class action, a number that’s far from being in the thousands, Monsanto said. Meanwhile, rival seed companies are piling on pressure: Beck’s Hybrids, the fourth-largest U.S. soybean-seed retailer, last month wrote to the EPA asking it to place new restrictions on the application of dicamba.
One lawsuit seeks to get dicamba taken off the market altogether. Oral arguments are scheduled for Aug. 29 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Seattle over whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency broke the law in granting the herbicide a two-year registration, which expires in November.
Farmers using dicamba were supposed to avoid drift damage by following instructions written on an “unprecedented” and “byzantine” 16,000-word label, said George Kimbrell, the legal director at the Center for Food Safety, one of four non-profit groups bringing the suit. The EPA may also have violated the Endangered Species Act, Kimbrell said.
Bayer lost more than 13 billion euros in market value in the week ended Friday as news of Roundup-related lawsuits mount. On Aug. 10, a San Francisco jury awarded $289 million to a groundskeeper who said Roundup, a four-decade old herbicide based on a chemical called glyphosate, gave him cancer.
Bayer also recently failed to block the state of California from listing Roundup as a known carcinogen.