Viewpoint: ‘Dicamba Debacle’ stirs questions about the future shape of ‘industrial, intensive agriculture’

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The ongoing trial involving Bayer/Monsanto and BASF over allegations of dicamba damage at a Missouri peach farm, the implications of the Dicamba Debacle exposes weaknesses, fissures, shortcomings and in some cases downright bad behavior at nearly every level of agriculture in America.

Emily Unglesbee, who has been covering the dicamba debacle for the Progressive Farmer, recently commented on what she called “Dicamba fatigue”. She wrote about state regulators backlogged with farmers’ complaints of dicamba injury and farmers who have stopped bothering to register new complaints out of frustration with a lack of results. The system has been overwhelmed.

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

Escalating number of cases

In a survey conducted by the Association of American Pesticide Control Officials, 19 states reported nearly 1,400 cases of alleged dicamba injury in 2019, most of them coming from a group of 10 states with the highest soybean acreage. Most of the regulators from these states acknowledged that these numbers are likely far lower than the actual cases of injury.

“We’re hearing the same thing as other regulators — people are just not reporting,” said Ryan Williams, an Oklahoma pesticide regulator who represented the EPA Region 6 states of Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas at  an annual meeting of state pesticide regulators, “They’re tired of reporting and not getting any results.”

Illinois led the country in reported incidents, with regulators actively investigating 724 cases, a record for the state, noted Brian Verhougstraete, a Michigan pesticide regulator representing Region 5 states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

“Illinois regulators mentioned that you would be hard-pressed to find a non-dicamba-tolerant soybean field in some counties that wasn’t damaged, because there were whole counties that appeared to be damaged,” Verhougstraete said.

Indiana regulators are investigating 178 cases this year, another state record. Investigations in the past few years have caused a ballooning budget for the Office of the Indiana State Chemist but produced few clear-cut answers for the state’s farmers. Last year, for example, the agency spent $2.2 million investigating claims, but was unable to pinpoint the cause of off-target movement in 84% of their investigations.

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Crops damaged by dicamba drift. Image: University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service

Dan Charles, NPR’s chief agriculture correspondent, recently noted that while tighter regulations issued by the EPA had helped control the epidemic of damage caused by dicamba drift in some states, others are still pushing the EPA for greater assistance. He spoke with Leo Reed, an official from Office of the Indiana State Chemist, who is also president-elect of the Association of American Pesticide Control. Reed and officials from other states participated in a conference call on the dicamba crisis with the EPA. What they wanted a clear answer on was: “Are crinkled soybean leaves an ‘unreasonable adverse effect’? Because if they are, then this product is federally misbranded.(Under the law) if a product is misbranded, then it can no longer be sold or used.”

“The No. 1 question we need an answer to is: Does EPA consider plant damage from dicamba usage an ‘unreasonable adverse effect?’ We need a yes or no.”… The EPA’s authorization to use dicamba in this way, however, will expire at the end of 2020. At that point, the agency will have to decide, once again, whether to let farmers keep spraying this chemical on their soybean and cotton crops.

The crisis actually  could escalate. Even as regulators and the farming community put up with the extraordinary problems and environmental impacts dicamba is causing because it remains the one herbicide still effective on pigweed (Palmer Amaranth). But evidence of the same problems that were faced by the overuse of glyphosate – weed resistance–are starting to emerge. Reports of dicamba-resistant pigweed are already reaching university weed scientists and county extension programs. This is not surprising; pigweed is an especially adaptive weed.

Monsanto and BASF on trial

Making matters worse, when Monsanto and BASF rolled out the new low-volatility formulations of dicamba, they anticipated the problems and developed a strategy of systematically denying responsibility and pushing all responsibility back onto farmers – according to testimony in an ongoing trial brought by a Missouri peach farmer against Monsanto and BASF, who said his farm was damaged by dicamba.

Monsanto’s policy was to not investigate complaints of dicamba damage. According to Bayer Crop Science regional agronomy lead Dr. Boyd Carey’s testimony, Monsanto and Bayer have a policy to not settle any claims of off-target movement. In addition, Carey testified that Dan Westberg, regional tech service manager at BASF, expressed concerns at meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in February of 2016 that the “widespread” illegal spraying would likely become “rampant” after Monsanto released its dicamba-tolerant soybeans in 2016.

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A field of dicamba-resistant soybeans

Meanwhile, Carey, in charge of developing the claims system for the launch of Monsanto’s Xtendimax with VaporGrip dicamba herbicide, wanted to investigate some claims to map what could be learned but was waved off by higher-ups, according to his testimony in the trial. Anticipating that one-fifth of growers would have issues in 2017, Carey requested a budget increase for that year’s claims process from $2.4 million to $6.5 million.

A 2016 incident management flow chart to help show how to process claims in 2017 illustrated that every claim that came in ended in “no settlement.”

Carey said that is a long-standing company policy.

Carey testified that in 2017, Monsanto refused to visit any “driftee” — an internal term for those who received crop damage — who was not a customer. Inspectors were told to research the purchasing history to see if they were current Monsanto customers in “good standing,” or did not owe the company money.

In later testimony, Gary Schmitz, tech service regional manager for the Midwest for BASF testified that BASF also had a “company policy to never settle complaints about off-target movement and that applicators are always responsible”. His testimony underscored that BASF tried to be clear with applicators that even with the lower volatility of the new formulations there was still considerable risk of drift and they should weigh the risks accordingly. Investigate Midwest reported:

But even if applicators follow the label, they still risk dicamba moving to other fields and causing symptomology, including cupped leaves, according to Schmitz’s testimony. Schmitz testified that the company told applicators to use their discretion, especially if a downwind farmer would be upset by symptomology. If it was their own fields or a friendly neighbor, spraying would be acceptable; otherwise, they should be aware that the responsibility is on the applicator, not BASF, Schmitz testified.

Even with the symptomology, the crops would not suffer yield loss, Schmitz said. Schmitz stood by that assertion, even though thousands of farmers alleged damage to more than 3.6 million acres of soybeans and other crops in 2017.

BASF has been producing dicamba for half a century and as veterans, they threw some shade at Monsanto, who’d only started in parallel with the new soybeans and cotton.

“After a YouTube video posted by Monsanto showed Monsanto employees applying dicamba, Luke Bozeman, the technical marketing manager for BASF, emailed Schmitz saying Monsanto makes “rookie mistakes on drift” and one cloud in the video was “messy.”

How did we get to this ‘breaking point’?

What does all this say about Monsanto/Bayer? About the seed and chemical input industry? About the state of pesticide regulation? And about industrial agriculture in general?

First, a few points need to be laid out.

Dicamba-tolerant crops and the lower volatility formulations were developed in response to a genuine and severe challenge facing Mid-South soybean and cotton farmers. As pigweed and other weeds developed resistance to Roundup (glyphosate) and other chemistries, resistant weeds were costing hundreds of millions of dollars each year in reduced yield and extra herbicide applications, with some fields left unharvested because the damage was so bad. A return to dicamba became a necessity to many farmers because there were no good options.

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Sign “Round up ready soyabeans” in field of genetically engineered soyabeans.

I haven’t seen the numbers crunched but it’s likely that the environmental impact of increased dicamba use has wiped out a substantial amount of the environmental gains achieved by the increase in glyphosate use associated with biotech glyphosate-tolerant crops. For biotech advocates, the substantial improvement to the environmental profile of herbicide use provided by Roundup Ready crops was an important achievement for biotech. The dicamba debacle takes a lot of shine off those bragging rights.

When Bayer acquired Monsanto in 2018, it purchased the best seed research program on the planet. It also purchased a world of headaches and legal woes. While so much of what people believe about Monsanto as a bad actor was wrong – misrepresented and misunderstood, as I noted in part three – its handling of The Dicamba Debacle is genuinely inexcusable. This is ‘corporation as villain’.

To recap what has been laid out in this series, Monsanto:

  • Pressured public scientists to withhold or downplay inconvenient data and analysis
  • Strong-armed the Arkansas Plant Board over regulations to address the problems created by the new dicamba formulations paired with their seeds
  • Anticipated the problems these products would cause and expected them to play out for a minimum of five years
  • Adopted a strategy of denying any and all complaints and shifting responsibility to farmers for products they knew would cause serious issues

Monsanto’s behavior layers on top of revelations that it may have ‘ghostwritten’ drafts of papers that academics finished up and put their names on in order to get positive evidence about the safety of Roundup into the academic record; and that Monsanto had developed intelligence gathering capacities to keep tabs on journalists and NGO activists. When you look at these revelations, considering incentives and impacts, they are far less sinister than the way they’ve been presented in the popular press. But Monsanto is not angel here, and trying to make the case that those things are a ‘bad look’ but aren’t particularly concerning is a lot harder when we now know of the revelations that it knowingly put out a product that it knew likely would cause serious environmental damage as well as farm-to-farm damage. This is especially galling behavior, set against the background that Monsanto pressured public scientists and strong-armed state regulators to sell more dicamba.

The seed and chemical industry

BASF isn’t exactly the hero of the story either. As more information from the Bader Farms trial is reported, we learn that while BASF is trying to distance itself from Monsanto/Bayer in the lawsuit — more of a ‘fierce competitor’ than a partner — the two companies closely coordinated the roll out of their competing dicamba formulations, according to testimony at the trial earlier this week.

BASF’s defense case is focused on establishing distance between itself and Monsanto.

“We are fierce competitors,” said Scott Kay, vice president of U.S. Crop Protection for BASF, in video testimony Tuesday.

Kay testified he didn’t know anything about a conspiracy with Monsanto, and in fact, Monsanto’s Xtendimax with VaporGrip is the main competition of BASF’s dicamba-based herbicide Engenia.

Tracey George, an attorney for Bader Farms, pointed out that top BASF and Monsanto officials met at least 19 times to discuss the rollout of the dicamba-tolerant system, including to discuss how to test dicamba products for regulators. George also pointed out that BASF gets money for every acre of dicamba-tolerant seeds planted.

… In 2017, the companies’ executives also met to discuss a joint defense strategy. At that meeting, Monsanto agreed to stop blaming drift damage on glufosinate, the weed killer in the LibertyLink soybean system, which BASF was acquiring from Bayer, according to documents.

Is BASF’s attempt to distance itself from Monsanto, because it is ethically a step above Monsanto or because in the current climate, anything associated with the Monsanto brand is kryptonite? Hard to tell.

Monsanto Money Crops

After acquiring Monsanto, Bayer put an immediate end to the intelligence operation that Monsanto was revealed to be running and committed to an internal investigation as to whether any concrete wrongs had been committed. Not all agri-businesses are the same and they haven’t all made the kind of egregious mistakes made by Monsanto. But in thinking about the situation of the industry writ large I think the big issue here is incentives. While neonicotinoid seed treatments are a fairly recent innovation and one that is largely positive for the industry (although attacked by many of the same critics of Monsanto and agri-businesses), in general, new chemistries and new herbicides in particular have remained largely out of reach. As resistance to various forms of pesticides inevitably develops, the incentives to move back to older, riskier, more environmentally impactful chemistries become more attractive.

There are new technologies in the pipeline that offer hope that science can bypass these classic problems associated with pesticides. Will gene drives, RNA interference, and AI/robotics come up to speed fast enough to reverse the problems rising pesticide resistance is causing? Let’s hope so.

Time to challenge ‘Big Ag’?

We don’t call it ‘Big Ag’ for nothing. These companies are powerful. They may not ‘control’ agriculture as critics contend, but they wield enormous power.  Monsanto’s move to sue the Arkansas State Plant Board out of existence and each board member individually demonstrates how large agriculture companies and trade associations can use their clout to get their way, often at the expense of democratic institutions and citizen’s rights.

There are other abuses. Best known are the ag gag laws that industry trade groups targeted animal rights groups that have done undercover investigations of hog and poultry CAFOs (e.g. large-scale industrial agricultural facilities that raise animals, usually at high-density, for the consumption of meat, eggs, or milk). They stifle the ability of whistleblowers and undercover investigators. Activities that once were punished by civil fines now carry criminal charges and can result in jail time. Whatever questions you may have about how animal rights groups have wielded their investigations, these gag laws make the kind of undercover investigations that 60 Minutes was once known for punishable with imprisonment rather than fines. They are a serious rollback of freedom of the press. They have been struck down in whole or in part as unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment in Iowa, Idaho, Utah, and Kansas, but remain in many other states.

Related article:  What's behind knee jerk concerns about glyphosate, GMOs?

In North Carolina, the hog industry passed a law, over the governor’s veto, limiting the property rights of North Carolina citizens. The law makes a special exemption for CAFOs, limiting their exposure in nuisance lawsuits. “Neighbors could only receive payment for decreased property or rental values. In victorious cases, there would be no dollars to compensate for health effects, mental distress or limited freedom to enjoy a property” as they would from successful suits against other offending nuisances. Similar laws have been passed in New Mexico, Indiana, Idaho, and Missouri.

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In 2013, when agricultural interests didn’t like the rulings they were getting from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in licensing a series of new large hog CAFOs, Agri-Growth, a lobbying group that included Monsanto, Cargill, Land O’ Lakes, Pfizer, and Hormel, joined A Greater Minnesota, a new nonprofit linking the state’s key agribusiness groups — the Milk Producers, the Corn Growers, and the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, to name a few. Their first step was a lobbying blitz at the MPCA. When that didn’t stop the ‘bad’ rulings, the next step was to mobilize to take effective control of the state legislature and over-rule the MPCA. That was all business as usual for trade associations working in their self-interest. Then they just up and eliminated the MPCA’s Citizens’ Board, as City Pages reported in 2015:

Big Ag’s greatest victory was the quick and unceremonious execution of the MPCA’s Citizens’ Board.

As the last line of defense for Minnesota’s environment, the Citizens’ Board had long been in the crosshairs of the ag industry. But the final straw came when it took on a 9,350-cow dairy farm [in 2014]. The proposed farm drew complaints from Stevens County residents concerned about hydrogen sulfide, a gas that comes from liquid manure lagoons and causes headaches, nausea, eye irritation, and respiratory problems. There wasn’t enough land to apply all the manure the dairy would produce. Nor was there enough groundwater to support the operation.

The Citizens’ Board overruled the MPCA, mandating a review of the dairy’s effects on water, air, and land. Riverview dropped its proposal altogether.

… Big Ag was furious with the Citizens’ Board decision. It lobbied to cut the board’s power and limit its authority to order environmental reviews. In the end, Republican Rep. Denny McNamara of Hastings and Iron Range DFL Senator David Tomassoni pushed through a bill to abolish the board.

“Getting rid of that Citizens’ Board doesn’t make any sense,” says Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union. “It’s worked for how many years? And now, because we had one large dairy that didn’t like it, so they hired lobbyists to come in and change that law?”

Sen. John Marty watched in horror. Abolishing the Citizens’ Board had never been debated. But as the legislative session closed, it was jammed through at the last minute.”Agribusiness wanted to get rid of it, and so they got rid of it,” says Marty.

A few years later, when the MPCA decided to allow the public comment period on a new CAFO to run an extra two weeks to accommodate a busy harvest season, Big Ag sued. Corporate agriculture interest groups, including the Minnesota Farm Bureau, the Minnesota AgriGrowth Council, and five commodity associations, sued the MPCA on the grounds that the agency does not have the authority to extend the comment period and called for its immediate end. A judge ruled that the agency does indeed have this authority, and the comment period was kept open.

“It was a strange suit; the operation at issue wasn’t even one of the plaintiffs,” explained Barbara Sogn-Frank, factory farming policy organizer for the Land Stewardship Project, whose members requested the longer comment period. “Corporate ag doesn’t want the public to weigh in, and so they keep working on trying to chip away at that.”

Do these incidents suggest a larger pattern, or could you find examples of random arrogance and abuse of power in any concentrated industry? It increasingly seems that Monsanto’s behavior in the Dicamba Debacle may be part of a dark underbelly of Big Ag lobbying and legal maneuvering that is anti-democratic, anti-First Amendment and a threat to citizen’s property rights when they come into conflict with industry.

The regulators failed

This part of story highlights a gap in the patchwork of federal regulations that allowed the seeds onto the market before the updated formulations were approved. But then it turns out that the new formulations weren’t really ready as approved. And then the state regulators on the ground were overrun by the scale of the problems the new formulations caused, and are continuing to cause.

Screen Shot at AM

It’s easy for regulators to adopt a standard going forward of making USDA approvals for herbicide-tolerant seeds contingent on EPA approvals for paired herbicides. The deeper question is if the EPA got all the information it needed in the first place, could it compel the companies to let public scientists test the formulations prior to approval, and should these new dicamba formulations have been approved in the first place? Pesticide approvals are probably one place where a more rigorous cost-benefit analysis that weighs precaution more heavily and puts a greater weight on demonstrations that the environmental upsides will outweigh the costs.

Farmers

Despite the lip service everyone pays to Integrated Pest Management (IPM), it was clear that many farmers were not practicing IPM and leaned too heavily on glyphosate, allowing pigweed resistance to become a huge problem. [Note: IPM is an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties. Pesticides are used only after monitoring indicates they are needed according to established guidelines, and treatments are made with the goal of removing only the target organism.]

Larry Steckel, associate professor/row crop weed specialist in the University of Tennessee Department of Plant Sciences, addressing the annual conference of the Mississippi Agricultural Consultants Association at Mississippi State University in 2011, notes that farmers are often too tied to using pesticides as a first line of pest control line of pest control rather than using alternative solutions.

It’s human nature. It’s denial by the grower — I’ll wait one more year; I’ll get by one more year.

You just cannot do that. You’ve got to manage the problem from the very first day you see these weeds in your field; otherwise, before you know it you’ll be behind the numbers curve, with resistant weeds everywhere, and you’ll have a battle royal on your hands.”

First, you lose money from the yield you don’t get because of competition from the weeds, and second, from the cost of the herbicides you throw at the weeds that won’t work. Once Palmer pigweed gets above 6 inches tall, there’s no herbicide that will control it.

We had a grower who spent $75 per acre on herbicide trying to control pigweed that had got away from him in a 220-acre field. The herbicide didn’t faze the weeds. He ended up not even putting a combine in the field.

In Indiana, state legislators are moving two bills to substantially increase the penalties on farmers for off-label misuse of pesticides specifically in response to dicamba issues. They are raising fines, especially on repeat offenders, because too many farmers have taken to paying the current fines as a normal cost of doing business rather than obeying the law.

The ethics around IPM have not been where they needed to be.

Spraying young cotton plants in a field

The heavy adoption of dicamba in soybeans and cotton, especially off-label applications — at night, when the wind isn’t right, the temperature isn’t right — put a dent in the commodity crop communities ability to make strong claims about environmental stewardship. It may be the case that use of dicamba is necessary to turn a profit on many of these farms and people need to do what they need to do. But the decision at this point to use dicamba knowing that it will likely drift and cause damage elsewhere places responsibility with the farmers and not solely with Monsanto for downplaying issues, pressuring researchers, and bullying state regulators.

I know of farmers in the soybean belt that won’t use dicamba because they don’t see it as consistent with being a good neighbor. They deserve our utmost respect as good citizens and stewards of the land. But overall, it’s hard to feel like those values were widely practiced throughout all this by most farmers.

Is ‘industrial agriculture’ the problem?

Does the dicamba debacle reveal industrial agriculture to be what it’s harshest critics have said all along? It depends whether you view it from 200 feet, 500 feet, 10,000 feet, or 30,000 feet. Or from space.

Viewed from the keyhole of 200 feet, the dicamba debacle is a disaster and embodies just about everything wrong with industrial agriculture that critics charge. It’s easy to make the case that greedy corporations putt profits above their purported values, feckless federal regulators, while farmers werewilling to externalize their environmental costs if that’s what it took to keep their farms afloat. You can add in some nuance, and context, and understanding of why things happened the way they happened, but it’s still not a pretty picture.

Zooming out further though, it’s not clear that what’s happened reveals anything essential about industrial agriculture. Sure it highlights some of the downsides of the interaction between farming and the worst aspects of capitalism. But on balance, the profile of pesticide use has greatly improved over the last few decades. Greatly increased applications of dicamba may be a step backwards, a stopgap while better solutions come into play. Hopefully, more robust Integrated Pest Management becomes more widely adopted.

But progress advances on many other fronts.

Every decision on the farm comes with trade offs. Dicamba is no different, though the negative trade offs are particularly acute and easily observed. But the point of controlling weeds is to protect yields. Protecting yields means less land is required per bushel of soybeans or pound of cotton. Every pigweed plant that is killed by dicamba means that there is some amount of water, fertilizer, diesel fuel not going to waste in that plant’s growth.

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Producing food for 320 million Americans and 7 billion humans is inevitably going to have an environmental impact. The impact associated with dicamba is higher than it should be, and the folks responsible for that need to be held accountable and the necessary adjustments to our regulatory regimes and systems of ethics need to be upgraded in response. But no system is ever going to get it right all the time. We’re always going to over-regulate a bit too much over here and under-regulate a bit too much over there. It’s moving a target and a project that never ends.

I’ve often written, “The question isn’t whether we are going to have industrial agriculture, in an industrial economy, mass market society – we are, we do. The question is what kind of industrial agriculture do we want?”

The dicamba debacle has provided us an opportunity to ask and answer that question with the kind of specificity we don’t often get. What do we need to do to update our regulatory regimes and our ethics to make something like this less likely? What are the best practices and good behaviors we want to incentivize? And what are the right incentives? How much are we willing to pay as a society? As taxpayers? As consumers? As farmers? And how much are we willing to force others to pay?

It’s easy to condemn the worst aspects of intensive agriculture and industrial production. It’s far harder to get into the nuts and bolts of how to move the ball forward.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’d like to extend a special thanks to Dr. Andrew Kniss for permission to use his dicamba timeline, Dr. Kevin Bradley who is responsible for so much of the research and analysis underlying this reporting, and Emily Unglesbee of Progressive Farmer and Dan Charles of NPR for their tireless reporting. And finally, Johnathan Hettinger of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting for his courtroom reporting. 

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’?
Part Four: Viewpoint: ‘Dicamba Debacle’ stirs questions about the future shape of ‘industrial, intensive agriculture’

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

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