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Herbicide headache II

March 2020

"...we used to sit next to the neighbours in church on Sunday. We don't even want to be in the same congregation with them anymore" (Ruff). This is what the latest GM soya is doing to the US farming community.
Just as biotech giant, Bayer, is coming to grips with the glyphosate lawsuits it acquired when it bought Monsanto in 2018 [1], it's finding itself with another herbicide headache.

The first of several suits against BASF (makers of older brands of dicamba herbicide) and against Bayer (makers of dicamba-tolerant GM soya seed and the dicamba formulations to go with them) came to court in January [2].  Compensation sought is $20.9 million plus punitive damages.
Dicamba was first commercialised in the late 1960s for use on corn fields.  The chemical is active at very low levels of exposure, and has an intrinsic tendency to vaporise so that it doesn't matter where or how carefully farmers spray it, it ends up somewhere else: collateral damage to neighbours' broad-leaf crops, such as soya and fruit, has always been a problem.

Soya has become a particular issue because acreage has increased tremendously in recent years. 

Monsanto determined to cash in on the dicamba problem by creating dicamba-tolerant GM crops which all  farmers would have to grow if they wanted any crop at all.  To get the new business off to a good start, the GM soya went on the market and into the ground in 2015, before the dicamba formulation approved for use on it was ready.  Predictably, the farmers who had planted the latest thing in soya sprayed it with older, unapproved, BASF brands of dicamba which are particularly liable to drift away.

Each year, farmers across the Midwest and South have filed an increasing number of complaints of damage to their crops.  In 2017, an approved, lower-volatility formulation of dicamba finally came on stream, but the complaints from neighbouring farmers continued to escalate, and by 2018 there were 3,259 complaints lodged.

The court case has presented internal company documents which show that Monsanto knew its dicamba-tolerant GM soya would lead to damaged crops, and that it took steps to prepare for the inevitable complaints.  It even made available a dicamba enquiry form for drift events which was actually developed so the company could gather data to assist it in defending itself against the anticipated complaints.

Monsanto is claiming that the peach orchard which is the subject of the first dicamba trial already had health issues before 2015, and that the farmer is opportunistically blaming these on dicamba.

OUR COMMENT


Even if Monsanto/Bayer gets away with it this time, will it manage to wriggle out 3,259(+) times?  That's a lot of vaporising $21-millions Bayer could be looking at.

BASF described themselves as fierce competitors of Bayer, and have never sold a dicamba-formulation for use on GM crops.  If the company wins this argument, Bayer will be picking up the tabs on its own.

In developing countries, the biotech industry seems to have been using third-party, illegal sales of GM seed to force GMOs into farms [1].  In a new twist to this tactic, it looks like it's cynically used the third-party sales of a legal agrichemical to force GMOs into farms in a developed country.

Monsanto also knew of evidence that glyphosate causes cancer [3] and that the criteria used by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) would lead to a conclusion of "probably carcinogenic to humans" for the herbicide.  Damage limitation measures were well in place when that headache started too.

Background
[1]  A CHOICE OF TWO BIOTECH EVILS - February 2019
[3]  Carey Gillam, Whitewash, 2017, ISBN 1-61091-832-0

SOURCES:
  • Johnathan Hettinger, Dicamba on trial: Internal docs show Monsanto, BASF prepared for drift complaints prior to dicamba launch, Investigate Midwest, 27.01.20
  • Corinne Ruff, Dicamba Goes On Trial: The History Behind Monsanto's Friendship-Wilting Weed Killer, St Louis Public Radio, 24.01.20

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