Farmers across 10 states are suing Monsanto, alleging that the agrochemical company sold dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybean crops knowing that illegal spraying of the highly volatile and drift-prone herbicide would be inevitable.
Steven W. Landers, et al v. Monsanto Company was filed on Jan. 26 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Southeastern Division. Kansas City law firm Randles & Splittgerber filed on behalf of Steven and Deloris "Dee" Landers and similarly harmed farmers in 10 states—Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
The farmers seek damages for claims including negligence, strict liability, failure to warn, conspiracy, disgorgement of profits and punitive damages.
According to a press release from the law firm, Steven and Dee Landers operate their family owned farms in New Madrid County, Missouri, and have been in business since 1976. The Landers claim that their farms have been greatly damaged by the illegal spraying of dicamba on Monsanto's Roundup Ready Xtend crops, which are genetically engineered to resist dicamba and Roundup (aka glyphosate).
Bev Randles of Randles & Splittgerber told EcoWatch that the Landers' 1,550-acre farm primarily grows soybeans and corn. In 2016, they experienced dicamba damage on more than half of their crops and acreage, resulting in a reduction of their yields in approximately the same percentage, especially with respect to their soybeans.
The farmers in the lawsuit allege that the biotech giant knowingly marketed its Xtend cotton and soybean seeds to farmers without any safe herbicide. The lawsuit claims that the company knew the only option purchasers would have to protect crops grown from those seeds would be to illegally spray dicamba to protect the crops from weeds.
"Monsanto chose to sell these seeds before they could be safely cultivated," said Randles. "Monsanto's own advertising repeatedly describes its Xtend seeds and its accompanying herbicide as a 'system' intended to be used together. But when Monsanto failed to get approval to sell the herbicide, it recklessly chose to go ahead and sell the seeds regardless."
"The inevitable result was farmers throughout the country used illegal and dangerous herbicides to try to protect the Xtend seeds. That inappropriate use of herbicides, which Monsanto knew would occur and encouraged, decimated hundreds of thousands of acres of crops nationwide," Randles added.
Monsanto's rollout of its Xtend system has been marked by controversy ever since the company sold its Xtend cotton and soybeans several growing seasons before getting federal approval for the corresponding herbicide.
Bollgard II XtendFlex cotton was introduced in 2015 and Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans was introduced in 2016. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only approved the corresponding herbicide, XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology, in late 2016. The new weedkiller is a combination of dicamba and glyphosate and is meant to address the proliferation of "superweeds" that have grown resistant to glyphosate.
Without having the proper herbicide, cotton and soybean growers were suspected of illegally spraying older versions of dicamba onto their crops and inadvertently damaging nearby non-target crops due to drift.
Last August, the EPA and state agencies received an "unusually high" number of reports of crop damage that appeared related to the illegal spraying of dicamba.
Missouri seemed to have the worst of it. Since June 22, the state's Department of Agriculture has received 124 complaints over pesticide drift that damaged more than 41,000 acres of non-target crops such as soybeans as well as peaches, tomatoes, watermelons, cantaloupe, rice, purple-hull peas, peanuts, cotton and alfalfa. Residential gardens, trees and shrubs have been included in the damage reports.
This is the not the only dicamba-drift case Monsanto is facing. The first such case was filed by Missouri's largest peach grower, Bader Farms, on Nov. 23. The farm reported a loss of about 7,000 trees in 2015, leading to a loss of $1.5 million with another 30,000 trees destroyed in 2016 because of suspected dicamba drift. The financial blow for last year has yet to be revealed.
Randles & Splittgerber also filed the lawsuit on behalf of Bader farms. That lawsuit is ongoing as a separate action from the new class action lawsuit.
"The more we learned about the extent of the damage, the more concerned we became for the smaller farmers who lack the resources to seek redress against Monsanto individually," Randles said. "The purpose of this suit is to hold Monsanto liable for its harm to all landowners, regardless of the size of the farms."
"This past year there was an under reported dicamba herbicide drift disaster in Missouri, Arkansas and other states that impacted thousands of acres, damaging fruits and vegetables and farmers' income," Ken Roseboro of the Organic & Non-GMO Report said.
"The largest peach producer in Missouri lost 30,000 trees, and one farmer even murdered another in a dispute over drift. The event that triggered this tragic chain of events was Monsanto selling dicamba-resistant GMO seeds to farmers even though the herbicide designed to go with the crops hadn't been approved by the EPA, leading farmers to use the older, more drift-prone versions of dicamba. Monsanto is ultimately responsible for this disaster and should be held accountable for it."
But Monsanto has repeatedly said that it warned farmers about the illegal application of the herbicide.
"Both prior to and throughout the 2016 season, Monsanto took many steps to remind growers, dealers and applicators that dicamba was not approved for in-crop use at the time, and we do not condone the illegal use of any pesticide," the company said in a statement in response to the Bader farms suit.
"While we sympathize with those who have been impacted by farmers who chose to apply dicamba illegally, this lawsuit attempts to shift responsibility away from individuals who knowingly and intentionally broke state and federal law and harmed their neighbors in the process. Responsibility for these actions belongs to those individuals alone. We will defend ourselves accordingly."
Ronnie Cummins, the international director of the Organic Consumers Association, criticized Monsanto's business practices.
"Monsanto has a long criminal record of poisoning farmers, consumers, communities and the environment for profit, and then using the government, regulatory agencies or the military to defend themselves, claiming that what they did was authorized or legal," he told EcoWatch. "They did this with DDT, PCBs, Agent Orange, Aspartame, Roundup, and now dicamba-resistant cotton and soybeans."
"If governments won't protect us from Monsanto, then the global grassroots must take matters into our own hands through consumer education, boycotts, litigation, direct action and all forms of marketplace pressure," Cummins added.
Earlier this month, Monsanto broke ground on a $975 million expansion to its Luling plant in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. The facility will manufacture dicamba. The company's bet on dicamba represents a major shift from its former star product, Roundup.
The company said its new dicamba formulation is specifically designed to have lower volatility.