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An American flag waves in the wind at the Phillip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco, California on May 17 where a trial against Monsanto took place. Alva and Alberta Pilliod, were awarded more than $2 billion in damages in their lawsuit against Monsanto, though the judge in the case lowered the damage award to $87 million. JOSH EDELSON / AFP / Getty Images

By Carey Gillam

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Levi Lyle (right) transitioned his family's farm to organic after his father Trent (right) overcame cancer. Bill Tiedje

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Pesticide spray sign on Vesterbrook Farm, which suffered damage from herbicide drift.

Herbicide drift has been a major problem last year damaging millions of acres of crops in the U.S.

An organic farmer in Missouri has seen firsthand how destructive herbicide drift can be as it destroys his crops and threatens his livelihood and farm.

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The majority of European Union governments voted against a proposal to authorize two new strains of genetically modified (GMO) maize today.

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Healthy soy leaves (left) compared to soy leaves with evidence of dicamba exposure (right). Photo credit: Flickr/University of Wisconsin

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.

In his vineyard, Bobby Cox uses hand-for-scale to show how long his grape leaves should actually be. Chemical damage from herbicide drift causes leaves to shrivel and suffer from strapping, interrupting the grape productivity. Photo credit: Bobby Cox

Wineries in Texas are worried that federal approval of two highly volatile and drift-prone herbicides used on neighboring genetically modified (GMO) cotton fields will cause widespread damage to their vineyards, The Texas Tribune details.

Dicamba damage on a grape leaves. Uky.edu

The herbicides in question are Monsanto's dicamba-based XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology, which was approved in November by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Dow AgroSciences' 2,4-D-based Enlist Duo, which the EPA also proposed to register for use on GMO cotton seeds. Enlist Duo is already used on GMO corn and soybean crops in 15 states.

"The approval of these formulations will wind up affecting every vineyard up there," explained Paul Bonarrigo, a Hale County vintner who believes that his withering grapevines have been damaged by the illegal spraying of dicamba and 2,4-D on nearby cotton farms. Bonarrigo believes that the state's $2 billion wine industry is in jeopardy.

The debacle is yet another chapter in the expanding 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 ever stronger weedkillers to help farmers.

As noble as that might sound, Monsanto was especially criticized when it decided to sell its dicamba- and glyphosate-resistant soybean and cotton seeds to farmers before securing EPA approval for the herbicide designed to go along with it. Bollgard II XtendFlex cotton was introduced in 2015 and Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans was introduced earlier this year.

Without having the proper herbicide, cotton and soy farmers resorted to spraying older versions of dicamba on their crops. But dicamba, as well as the herbicide 2,4-D, are extremely prone to drift, meaning the chemicals can be picked up by the wind and land on neighboring fields that cannot withstand the chemical damage. When exposed to the herbicide, leaves on non-target plants are often left cupped and distorted.

Researchers from Ohio State University published a study in September showing that herbicide spray drift from the 2,4-D and dicamba can severely damage wine grape plants near agronomic crops.

Common leaf injury symptoms observed in vines 42 d after being treated with (a) glyphosate, (b) 2,4-D, (c) dicamba, and (d) nontreated controlOhio State University

Although Monsanto said it warned farmers against illegal dicamba spraying, this past summer, dicamba drift caused 10 states to report widespread damage on thousands of acres of non-target crops such as peaches, tomatoes, cantaloupes, watermelons, rice, cotton, peas, peanuts, alfalfa and soybeans.

Last month, Missouri's largest peach grower filed a lawsuit against Monsanto over claims that dicamba drift damaged more than 7,000 peach trees on the farm, amounting to $1.5 million in losses. This year, the farm said it lost more than 30,000 trees, with financial losses estimated in the millions.

Regulators assured to The Texas Tribune that the new pesticides are less likely to vaporize and drift, and the risk of damage will lessen if farmers follow safety precautions.

"I don't see this as being any more of an issue than what we have today," Steve Verett, executive vice president of the Plains Cotton Growers, told the publication. "I understand there are other sensitive crops as well. No matter what the product is or the farmer that's spraying, they need to make sure that the product they're spraying stays on their farm."

Kyel Richard, a spokesman for Monsanto, added that the company has conducted training exercises and education efforts to minimize "the opportunity for movement off- site and ensuring those herbicides are staying on target and controlling those weeds on the field that they're intended for."

State wineries, however, are worried that with the EPA's approval, use of dicamba and 2,4-D will expand to include 3.7 million acres of cotton fields.

"I could see it basically killing the [wine] industry, honestly," Garrett Irwin, owner of Cerro Santo vineyard in Lubbock County, countered. "If we get the levels of damage that I'm afraid we'll get, vineyards will not be able to recover or produce grapes at any sustainable level, and we're just going to have to go away."

Irwin also commented that cotton and soy farmers are likely to stick with old dicamba and 2,4-D herbicides because the new formulations are more expensive. Additionally, farmers have to upgrade their equipment with anti-drift nozzles to use the new products.

"I honestly don't think farmers will buy the new formulations when older labels that cost less are available and just as effective as the new labels," he said. "In short, I think farmers will buy generic chemicals without the additives to save money because the cotton won't know the difference."

And if they do buy the new herbicides, there will still be some farmers who "will do nothing to correct for negligence in spraying," Irwin said.

Pheasant Ridge Valley winery owner Bobby Cox told The Texas Tribune that he is worried that cotton farmers will have no choice but to switch to the new seeds system.

Cox said that 2,4-D drift in 2015 caused the amount of sugar in his grapes to be about 5 percent less than ideal.

"It will be catastrophic not only to vineyards but to oak trees, to pecan orchards, to shrubs," Cox said. "If they apply the amount of 2,4-D that they did Roundup and are equally irresponsible with that, it will kill everything green up here. I wish people would understand how important wine growing is for this area, how wonderful of a crop it is on the High Plains. It would be a shame to lose it when we're starting to get recognized."

Not only that, environmental experts worry about dicamba's threat on biodiversity and wonder if pesticide-makers are just creating another cycle of herbicide resistance.

"Once again the EPA is allowing for staggering increases in pesticide use that will undoubtedly harm our nation's most imperiled plants and animals," said Nathan Donley, a scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, after the EPA approved the Xtend weedkiller. "Iconic species like endangered whooping cranes are known to visit soybean fields, and now they'd be exposed to this toxic herbicide at levels they've never seen before."

"We can't spray our way out of this problem. We need to get off the pesticide treadmill," he continued. "Pesticide resistant superweeds are a serious threat to our farmers, and piling on more pesticides will just result in superweeds resistant to more pesticides. We can't fight evolution—it's a losing strategy."

Missouri's largest peach grower is suing Monsanto over claims that dicamba drift caused widespread damage to the farm's peach trees. This is Monsanto's first lawsuit over the illegal spraying of the herbicide on its genetically modified (GMO) cotton and soy that's suspected of causing extensive damage to non-target crops across America's farm belt.

Peach tree damaged by dicamba drift Kade McBroom

The lawsuit, Bader Farms, Inc., et al v. Monsanto Company, Case No. 16DU-CC00111, was filed in Dunklin County, Missouri on Nov. 23. Bill Bader of Bader Farms in Campbell, Missouri claims that more than 7,000 peach trees were damaged by the drift-prone and extremely volatile herbicide in 2015, amounting to $1.5 million in losses. This year, the farm said it lost more than 30,000 trees, with financial losses estimated in the millions.

The complaint accuses Monsanto of knowingly selling dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybean seeds to farmers before securing federal approval for the herbicide designed to go along with it. Bollgard II XtendFlex cotton was introduced in 2015 and Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans was introduced earlier this year. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency only approved the corresponding herbicide, XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology, last month.

Even though the biotech company warned growers against illegal dicamba use on the crops, many farmers allegedly sprayed older versions of dicamba on the crops anyway to stop weeds. However, while Monsanto's crops are genetically engineered to tolerate sprays of dicamba, other crops cannot. And since dicamba is extremely prone to drift, it can be picked up by the wind and land on neighboring fields, crops and native plants. In the fall, 10 states reported horrific damage on thousands of acres of peaches, tomatoes, cantaloupes, watermelons, rice, cotton, peas, peanuts, alfalfa and soybeans.

Bader said in August that 400-500 farmers in his region have been affected: "If they don't get compensation 60 percent will be out of business in two years."

"We need to go after Monsanto. These farmers are being hung out to dry," Bader added.

Bader's lawsuit alleges that Monsanto chose to sell its Xtend cotton and soybean seeds knowing that such destructive spraying would be inevitable.

"Monsanto chose to sell these seeds before they could be safely cultivated," Bev Randles of Randles & Splittgerber, the Kansas City, Missouri law firm representing Bader Farms, said in a statement. "We believe it is against Monsanto's own practice, not to mention industry standards, to release a seed without a corresponding herbicide to protect the crop from destruction. But Monsanto chose greed over public safety and made farms in Southeast Missouri and Northeast Arkansas unwilling test labs for their defective seed system."

The law firm expects similar lawsuits to follow. "Our firm continues to be contacted to help farmers who have been harmed by Monsanto's actions," Randles said. "They are folks who have supported Monsanto by purchasing their products for years, only to have been betrayed in the end. We expect more farmers to file suit in the coming weeks."

In response, Monsanto said that the responsibility lies with the growers who illegally applied dicamba.

"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 to Brownfield. "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."

Monsanto developed its Xtend system to address "superweeds" that have grown resistant to glyphosate, the main ingredient in the company's former bread-and-butter, Roundup. The firm expects to see 15 million Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybean acres and more than 3 million acres of Bollgard II XtendFlex cotton in 2017. According to AgWeb, the technology is also licensed to more than 100 additional brands. The company has invested more than $1 billion in a dicamba production facility in Luling, Louisiana, to meet the demand it predicts.

Critics, however, are worried about the herbicide's potential threat to biodiversity, that it forces growers to switch to the Xtend system and that it only creates another round of superweeds. Dicamba-resistant weeds have already been found in Kansas and Nebraska.

"We can't spray our way out of this problem. We need to get off the pesticide treadmill," Dr. Nathan Donley with the Center for Biological Diversity said. "Pesticide resistant superweeds are a serious threat to our farmers, and piling on more pesticides will just result in superweeds resistant to more pesticides. We can't fight evolution—it's a losing strategy."

To the horror of farmers across America's farm belt, hundreds of thousands of crop acres have been adversely impacted by the apparent misuse of the drift-prone herbicide dicamba on Monsanto's Roundup Ready Xtend soybean and cotton plants.

A soybean plant affected by dicamba drift from a nearby field, roadside or other area where the herbicide was applied. Purdue

According to a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compliance advisory, the EPA and state agencies have received an "unusually high" number of reports of crop damage that appear related to the illegal spraying of dicamba.

The EPA has collected similar reports of crop damage from 10 states: Missouri, Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Missouri appears to have suffered the most. According to the Southeast Missourian, the state's department of agriculture has received 125 complaints of dicamba damage on more than 40,000 crop acres.

Missouri farmers have reported damage on a number of crops including peaches, tomatoes, cantaloupes, watermelons, rice, cotton, peas, peanuts, alfalfa and soybeans, the EPA said.

The reason behind this widespread crop damage is that while Monsanto's genetically modified (GMO) crops can withstand sprays of dicamba, other crops cannot. The seed company decided to sell its new dicamba-tolerant seeds to farmers before gaining federal approval for the herbicide specifically designed to go with the seeds—DuPont FeXapan herbicide plus VaporGrip Technology—which is supposed to reduce dicamba's volatility and drift damage.

While Monsanto has warned farmers not to do so, farmers are illegally spraying their GMO soybeans and cotton with older formulas of dicamba to beat back weeds. Dicamba's over-the-top usage for the growing of cotton or soybean plants has not been approved by the EPA. Any farmer who sprays this herbicide over their dicamba-tolerant crops are breaking the law and can face fines of $1,000.

During a Wednesday hearing at Missouri's House Select Committee on Agriculture, Duane Simpson, who heads Monsanto's U.S. state and local government affairs team, said, "Monsanto, like all of you, is concerned about the damage we are seeing due to the alleged illegal misuse of pesticides."

According to the Southeast Missourian, Simpson said that once the new herbicide is approved by the EPA, Monsanto will offer general training with dealers, applicators and farmers on the proper way to use dicamba.

However, some farmers feel they have no choice but to buy Monsanto's dicamba-tolerant crops just to protect their crops from drift. As Bloomberg described:

For folks like Landon Hayes, who grows earlier-generation soybeans in Campbell, Missouri, the consequences have been costly. He says 500 acres of his crops were damaged this summer by stray wisps of dicamba. And now he feels compelled to buy the engineered Monsanto seeds to avoid injury next season.

"They knew that people would buy it just to protect themselves," Hayes says. "You're pretty well going to have to. It's a good marketing strategy, I guess. It kind of sucks for us."

The dicamba problem is not going away anytime soon. Reuters reported that Xtend soybeans were planted on 1 million acres in the U.S. this year, but Monsanto expects 15 million acres to be planted with the GMO soybeans next season and 55 million acres by 2019.

"If the EPA doesn't do something, that means every farmer needs to buy Xtend to protect themselves from their neighbor," Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Jonas Oxgaard told Bloomberg.

In response, Monsanto spokeswoman Christi Dixon told Bloomberg it is "absolutely false" that her firm engineered the problem for profit, adding that the company took "extensive steps" to warn farmers of illegal dicamba use.

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