IT ALL STARTS WITH WEEDS
Weeds are a straightforward problem without an easy solution. They suck up water and compete with crops for space, sunlight and nutrients. When left unchecked, they can cut a farmers’ yield by as much as 50 percent. Translated into dollars, that means billions in lost revenue. The weed business (and not the kind you smoke) is no joke.
Aqua Mechanical on Flickr @ Creative Commons
ROUNDUP READY CROPS
Farmers needed a weed solution and agrichemical giant, Monsanto Co., gave them one: Roundup. Spraying the popular weed killer was a quick fix. The only hitch was the active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, was powerful enough to kill their crops too. So Monsanto genetically engineered “Roundup Ready” crops to survive glyphosate. It put farmers in the glyphosate spray game and for almost 20 years they sprayed, and sprayed, and sprayed.
Then one day something happened. Tired of being bullied by farmers, the weeds fought back. They adapted and became even stronger. Now they weren’t just ordinary weeds; they were “super weeds” resistant to glyphosate. Some of these super weeds were capable of growing up to 10 feet tall, as high as cornstalks, and their revenge was relentless. They invaded over 100 million acres of farmland across 10 states. Tennessee had as many as 10 species of glyphosate-resistant weeds. Years of spraying Roundup had come home to roost and farmers were desperate to get rid of them. So, again, they turned to Monsanto.
And Monsanto delivered. They went to the lab and created a powerful dynamic duo. A stronger weed killer called XtendiMax with VaporGrip. It contained a chemical Monsanto added to the mix called dicamba. Dicamba had been around for decades, but farmers couldn’t use it because it’s highly toxic to soybean plants. So Monsanto created a GMO soybean that could survive dicamba and glyphosate. This meant farmers could spray the weed killer and obliterate their super weeds without harming their soybean crops (a huge U.S. crop used in animal feed and processed, prepared, restaurant, and frozen food).
CONCERNS ABOUT SPRAYING DICAMBA
One of the biggest concerns about spraying the original formulation of dicamba is that it vaporizes quickly and can travel through the air. Farmers were prohibited from using it because when it drifts, it can kill most broad-leafed plants not genetically engineered to withstand it.
Monsanto claimed its new formulation of dicamba was less likely to drift, but it hadn’t been approved by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) when the soybeans were ready to go to market. Rather than wait for the EPA’s approval, Monsanto released the soybeans without the new weed killer.
This left farmers in a bit of a pinch. How were they supposed to kill the super weeds that were threatening their crops without the new herbicide? Desperate, some farmers felt their only choice was to illegally spray the older formulation of dicamba. The one that was prone to drift. When they sprayed, it resulted in an unprecedented ‘dicamba-drift’ that decimated over 200,000 acres of crops and cost farmers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
THE DICAMBA-DRIFT LAWSUIT AGAINST MONSANTO
The first suit filed against Monsanto for the ‘dicamba-drift’ was in December of last year on behalf of Missouri’s largest peach grower, Bader Farms (Bader Farms, Inc., et al v. Monsanto Company). They claim to have lost over 30,000 trees due to dicamba-drift, with financial losses estimated in the millions.
A class action lawsuit (Steven W. Landers, et al v. Monsanto Company) soon followed. It was filed on January 26, 2017, in the U.S. District Court in Missouri on behalf of farmers in 10 states—Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.
The suit alleges that Monsanto marketed the new GMO seeds and herbicide as a system intended to be used together, but released one without the other leaving farmers without a herbicide to use on their crops. The suit claims that Monsanto had to know that the farmers would have no choice but to illegally spray dicamba. Hundreds of farmers are expected to join the class action suit.
MONSANTO DENIES ANY WRONGDOING
“This baseless lawsuit seeks an unprecedented expansion of the law by attempting to impose liability on a company that did not make the product that allegedly caused the damage, did not sell the product that allegedly caused the damage, and in fact, warned against the very use of the product alleged in the complaint . . . The suit is simply an attempt to shift responsibility away from individuals who knowingly and intentionally broke state and federal law and harmed their neighbors in the process.” – Charla Lord, spokeswoman for Monsanto
EPA APPROVES MONSANTO’S XTENDIMAX
The EPA ultimately approved Monsanto’s XtendiMax with VaporGrip in 2016, but for only 2 growing seasons. If the product is used safely and no further harm is done, in 2018 the EPA can extend the approval for 3 more years. As a precaution, the EPA prohibits spraying the weedkiller from an aircraft or applying it when the wind speeds are above 15 miles per hour.
ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS GO TO COURT
Several environmental groups, including Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity and Pesticide Action Network North America, filed a petition for review of the EPA’s approval of XtendiMax with VaporGrip on January 20, 2017, in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (Nat’l Family Farm Coal. V. EPA, 9th Cir., No. 17-70196, 1/20/17). The groups claim the EPA approved the new herbicide before consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether the new weedkiller harms plants and animals protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“Federal regulators have abandoned the interests of farmers, the environment and public health. We won’t allow our food to be dragged backward into a pesticide-soaked nightmare – not without a hell of a fight.” – George Kimbrell, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety
“When used according to label directions, dicamba is safe for everyone, including infants, the developing fetus, the elderly and more highly exposed groups such as agricultural workers. It also meets the safety standard for the environment, including endangered species.”
TOXIC IN CANADA
The EPA claims dicamba is safe for the environment, but a 2015 Monsanto “supplemental label and brochure“ for the same formulation of XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology sold in Canada says it’s toxic.
“Toxic to aquatic organisms and non-target terrestrial plants. Observe buffer zones. . .”
Even the “Supplemental Labeling” Monsanto submitted to the EPA warns farmers not to let the product drift into areas with sensitive habitat.
“This product should only be applied when the potential for drift to adjacent sensitive areas (e.g. residential areas, bodies of water, known habitat for species at risk, or sensitive crop plants) is minimal (e.g. when the wind is blowing away from sensitive areas).”
The EPA claims that when directions are followed dicamba is safe for humans, even infants and developing fetuses, but those safety directions differ in the U.S and Canada. The Canadian label instructs farmers to wear long-sleeves and chemical-resistant gloves when applying dicamba, and includes safety precautions for animals.
“DO NOT permit lactating dairy animals to graze fields within 7 days after application” and “DO NOT harvest forage or cut hay within 30 days after application” and “Withdraw meat animals from treated fields at least 3 days before slaughter.”
Those safety precautions aren’t on the “Supplemental Labeling” Monsanto submitted to the U.S. EPA on November 9, 2016, which expires in 2018, and neither is this one:
“The use of this chemical may result in contamination of groundwater particularly in areas where soils are permeable and/or the depth to the water table is shallow.”
Every country has different requirements in terms of what must be included on the label, but it seems the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture and the EPA have come to different conclusions about the safety precautions farmers should take when using it.
ARE FARMERS LEFT OUT TO DRY?
The 12-page U.S. “Supplemental Labeling” report for Xtendimax submitted to the EPA is long and onerous. If farmers fail to follow the very complex safety instructions for this highly toxic product, Monsanto takes no responsibility for any loss or damage. The burden will fall on the farmers.
This is troubling because the label warns that even “minute quantities”of dicamba can kill.
“If the herbicide is allowed to “mist, drip, drift of splash” onto any other crop or “vegetation” it could cause “severe injury or destruction.”
Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, told AgPro:
“Following the label is a seemingly simple, but not-so-easy task. You have to be reading these labels now and understanding what they really require because there’s never been a pesticide label as detailed as this one.”
Recent research suggests that weeds can become resistant to dicamba in just 3 years. Undoubtedly, companies like Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont, and Dow Chemical will continue to up the ante on the chemical cocktails they create to combat weeds. But how much more toxic will these chemical combinations get and will the EPA adequately address the potential harm to human health and the environment?
The farmers’ case against Monsanto is still pending.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If you want to avoid exposure to dicamba and other chemicals farmers spray on crops, buy food grown by local organic farmers and avoid GMOs. GMOs generally come with a related chemical herbicide. The most common GMOs are cotton, soy, corn, sugar beets, canola, yellow summer squash/zucchini, Hawaiian papaya and alfalfa.
Feature image courtesy of Jeroen Mirck on Flickr @Creative Commons