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West Texas Vineyards Hit by Herbicide Drift

Wine makers in West Texas are reeling from herbicide drift injuries on their grapevines, an emerging threat to the state's $13 billion a year industry, NPR's Morning Edition reported Tuesday.

The damage likely originates from use of Monsanto's dicamba and Dow's 2,4-D formulations on nearby cotton fields. The companies sell cotton seeds that are genetically modified to withstand applications of the weedkillers. If farmers use the products improperly, the highly volatile chemicals can get picked up by the wind and land on off-target crops. When exposed to the herbicides, the leaves on non-target plants are often left cupped and distorted.


Drift damage has ranged from "light exposure" that does not harm the grapes to "total devastation" at some wineries, according to NPR.

Pierre Helwi is a viticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, who monitors dozens of the region's vineyards estimates that 90-95 percent of them have been damaged.

Texas, the fifth largest wine producer in the country, is home to more than 400 wineries, according to the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association. West Texas, which has a dry climate ideal for growing cotton as well as wine grapes, has become the backbone of the state's wine industry and grows about 80 percent of its wine grapes.

Last year, West Texas vintners expressed this very concern that federal approval of Monsanto and Dow's formulations could jeopardize the sector.

This is the third year in a row where dicamba has affected the nation's crops. A report from the University of Missouri last month found that dicamba drift caused more than 1 million acres of crop injuries across the U.S.

The ongoing saga of pesticide drift highlights the growing issue of herbicide-resistant weeds, or superweeds, that have evolved to resist the herbicide glyphosate, or Roundup. In response to weeds such as pigweed that have infested farms across the U.S., agribusinesses such as Monsanto and Dow have developed stronger formulations to help farmers.

The companies have said their weedkillers can be safely used with proper training and if farmers adhere to label instructions, although some have complained that the instructions are too restrictive or difficult to follow.

Farmers and conservation groups have waged lawsuits against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for approving Monsanto and Dow's mixtures.

Dicamba's federal approval is subject to expiration this fall, during which the EPA will decide whether to renew the registration or let it expire. 2,4-D is also currently undergoing registration review.

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"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."

Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.

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"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.

Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.

Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.

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Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.

University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.