‘Monsanto on the attack’: How an aggressive defense contributed to the ‘dicamba debacle’

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North Dakota farmer Steve Miller complained about a neighbor’s off-target spray damaging his fields. Image: Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates

In the fall of 2000, there was a massive recall of processed foods from grocery shelves. A new genetically engineered version of Bt corn had hit the market for farmers in May of 1998 but was approved only for use as animal feed. Developed by Aventis (acquired by Bayer in 2002), Starlink corn used a new protein, Cry9C from the soil bacteria – bacillus thuringiensis – which is toxic to pests that eat corn plants, as well as a trait for tolerance of the herbicide glufosinate. During the approval process, due to a testing glitch, there was some concern that Cry9C could be a human allergen. Subsequently, the EPA went ahead and approved Starlink for animal feed but not for human consumption while they worked out the allergen issue.

Then Starlink popped up on supermarket shelves in Kraft Taco Bell taco shells. Detected by anti-GMO activists, “Kraft had bought the shells from a Sabritas plant in Mexicali which used flour supplied from an Azteca mill plant in Plainview, Texas. The Texas mill used flour from six states supplied by elevators that did not segregate their genetically modified and conventionally-grown corn at the time.”

[Editor’s note: This is the second segment of a four-part series on the “Dicamba Debacle.” Read part one, part three and part four.]

Despite the fact that subsequent testing demonstrated that Starlink posed no actual allergen risk, instead of approving Starlink for human consumption, Starlink was pulled from the market altogether. But the consequential outcome was that regulators would not issue split approvals in the future. Seeds would need to be approved for both human and animal consumption or not at all.

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‘Dicamba debacle’ begins as a parallel to the Starlink incident.

At first, the ‘dicamba debacle’ started off with what seemed like a major regulatory snafu, but one that was a bit of an outlier and in terms of the issues relating to biotech crops, confined to herbicide-tolerant crops. Monsanto had bred soybeans and cotton that could be paired with the herbicide dicamba and the USDA approved the seeds. But the EPA did not approve the new formulations of dicamba meant to be used with the new seeds. This was a manifestation of our segmented regulatory apparatus with biotech seed approvals and pesticide regulations handled by different agencies even when the products are paired. It was the kind of error that could be fairly easily addressed by an interagency coordination office or simply the kind of change in approach that followed the disaster of the rollout of Starlink corn’s segmented approval.

The USDA deemed the new soybeans safe and deregulated them at the beginning of 2015, but the EPA did not follow suit with the newer formulations of dicamba that were meant to go with the new crops. Soybeans and cottonseed don’t come from seed factories, they need to be grown in advance – and the seed for growing commercial seed needs to be grown prior to that. Monsanto ended up with a pipeline of seed that was dicamba-tolerant but without the right kind of dicamba available. That meant that there were dicamba-tolerant seeds, but no safe or legal dicamba available. What was available were the older formulations that were prone to drift. Now farmers had soybeans that wouldn’t die from exposure to dicamba and devastating weeds that would. They weren’t supposed to use dicamba with the new soybeans, but for many that became the warning on the Q-Tip box not to stick Q-Tips in your ear — What the hell else are you going to do with them?

In the first few years, the damage from drift could be blamed on a regulatory quirk. On farmers breaking the law with off-label use of older dicamba. But then the problems persisted after the proper formulations were approved and moved to market. The new dicamba formulations ‘worked’ under very specific conditions. The equipment had to be exactly right. The air temperature had to be exactly right. The wind conditions had to be exactly right.

As a rule of thumb, any plan that requires everything to go exactly right for success is a bad plan.

The problem goes from regulatory to technical

The nature of the dicamba debacle transformed from a snafu that would work itself out after a year or so to an ongoing problem that would require real reform and investment. At the time, some of us said that Monsanto would do well to suck it up and assume responsibility. Maybe they should set up a fund, get the other big input companies to contribute, spread money around easing the issue rather than exacerbating it. Avoid at all costs coming across as the greedy mega-corporation that put short term profits ahead of all else. This is not the path Monsanto chose. They chose to blame farmers and go on the offensive against researchers and regulators.
dicamba damage

The issue had hardly been solved with the introduction of the supposedly low volatility formulations.  Kevin Bradley a weed scientist with the Integrated Pest Management program at the University of Missouri has been collecting data to map the scale and scope of the problem from the beginning. Writing in July of 2018 he observed:

As for the information within the maps, as a point of reference, last season the first time we published any U.S.-wide information was on July 25th, 2017. At that time, there were 1,411 dicamba-related injury investigations being conducted by the various state Departments of Agriculture while university weed scientists estimated approximately 2.5 million acres of soybean had been injured with dicamba. To date, at about the same time in 2018, we have somewhere around 600 cases being investigated by the state departments of agriculture and approximately 1.1 million acres of soybean estimated with dicamba injury by university weed scientists.

He concludes, asking:

First, does 605 official dicamba-related injury investigations and/or approximately 1.1 million acres of dicamba-injured soybean constitute a problem for U.S. agriculture?

Second, can you look at the scale and the magnitude of the problem on these maps and really believe that all of this can collectively be explained by some combination of physical drift, sprayer error, failure to follow guidelines, temperature inversions, generic dicamba usage, contaminated herbicides, and improper sprayer clean out, but that volatility is not also a factor?

Volatility very clearly remains a problem. And the other variables can’t be wished away. They can be addressed, but they are never going to go away completely.

Related article:  Monsanto Roundup trial: First lawsuit alleging glyphosate-cancer link goes to jury

To repeat myself. As a rule of thumb, any plan that requires everything to go exactly right for success is a bad plan.

Monsanto goes on the attack

When the citizen/stakeholder run Arkansas Plant Board moved in 2017 to ban the use of dicamba, instead of taking responsibility and working to resolve issues, Monsanto decided to try to short-circuit the democratic process and took them to court, suing the board as a whole and in a particularly hardball move, each member of the board individually. Monsanto even successfully sued to undercut the board’s right to exist at all, arguing that 1917 state law establishing the board was unconstitutional.

For 102 years, the board has been made up of some members appointed by the governor and others named by agricultural groups. It was formed at the time to deal with a plant disease that threatened the state’s then-vibrant apple industry.

Today’s board has seven members appointed by the governor and nine selected by groups, such as those representing aerial applicators, seed dealers, seed growers, horticulture, pest management, forestry and pesticide manufacturers. Two others represent the University of Arkansas System’s Agriculture Division but don’t have voting privileges.

Russell Bragg of Fort Smith, a board member selected by the Arkansas Feed Manufacturers Association, said the board “has effectively managed” Arkansas agriculture issues for more than 100 years.

Bragg said its composition is being challenged now only because Monsanto “put out a chemical that won’t stay put” and “wanton disregard” for Plant Board restrictions against dicamba’s use. The board has set a May 25 cutoff date for dicamba’s in-crop use next year.

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In late October of 2017, NPR’s Dan Charles (whose reporting on this issues has been dogged and invaluable) reported that public university weed scientists had been pressured by Monsanto to back off from warnings that the new formulations weren’t ready for prime time. Speaking with professor Bradley and others:

“I wish we could have done more testing. We’ve been asking to do more testing for several years, but the product was not made available to us,” says Bob Scott, a weed scientist at the University of Arkansas. “These are proprietary products. Until they release those formulations for testing, we’re not allowed to [test them].”

… “I don’t even talk about weed management anymore,” Bradley tells me, and he sounds disgusted. “Nobody calls me and ask me those questions. I barely have time to even work with my graduate students. Everything is about dicamba. Every single day.”

Dicamba, an old weedkiller that is being used in new ways, 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.

“It’s not comfortable. I’m like anybody else, I don’t like [it when] people are unhappy with me,” says Mike Owen, a weed specialist at Iowa State University. Then he chuckles. “But sometimes, like John Wayne said, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do!”

“Certainly, there’s not a weed scientist in any of these states who would back down, who would change their story,” says Aaron Hager, at the University of Illinois.

… The company called on regulators to disregard information from Jason Norsworthy, one of the University of Arkansas’ weed researchers, because he had recommended that farmers use a non-dicamba alternative from a rival company. Monsanto also attacked the objectivity of Ford Baldwin, a former university weed scientist who now works as a consultant to farmers and herbicide companies.

“I read it as an attack on all of us, and anybody who dares to [gather] outside data,” Scott says. “And some of my fellow weed scientists read it that way as well.”

Bradley says executives from Monsanto have made repeated calls to his supervisors. “What the exact nature of those calls [was], I’m not real sure,” Bradley says. “But I’m pretty sure it has something to do with not being happy with what I’m saying.”

St. Louis, we have a problem.

Bradley posed the question in a 2017 essay, “Ag Industry, Do we have a problem yet?”.

At this point, it’s pretty clear they do. The question I have is what is the nature of the problem? What does Monsanto’s response say about the company (now part of Bayer)? About the industry? About the regulatory regime?

Does the dicamba debacle reveal something essential about industrial farming – have critics been right all along? Or does it point to something substantial, but more contingent?

We’ll look at these and other questions in the final part of this series, after exploring some of the more critical developments of this ongoing debacle.


Part One: Farmer vs farmer: After tens of thousands of acres of crop damage, what are we to make of the ‘dicamba debacle’?
Part Two: ‘Monsanto on the attack’: How an aggressive defense contributed to the ‘dicamba debacle’
Part Three: Viewpoint: Dicamba debacle trial forces a reevaluation: Is Monsanto a ‘bonafide bad actor’?

Marc Brazeau is the GLP’s senior contributing writer focusing on agricultural biotechnology. Follow him on Twitter @eatcookwrite

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