Roundup replacement spawns farmers' complaints

Some Arkansas farmers have filed suit against Monsanto and other sellers

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MINNEAPOLIS — A potential blockbuster chemical product from Monsanto in its first year of widespread use has come under scrutiny for damaging soybeans, prompting hundreds of complaints to the state of Minnesota and at least one lawsuit, filed by Arkansas farmers.

The product, an herbicide called dicamba that’s used with genetically modified Xtend soybean and cotton seeds, was produced to solve a burgeoning problem. Many weeds have become resistant to Roundup and other popular weedkillers, and growers and crop protection businesses are eager to have a replacement.

The problem, say farmers, is that the new dicamba formulation is vaporizing after it’s sprayed and drifting like a fog to injure unprotected crops in nearby fields.

“We have a large swath of the state that has reported some level of dicamba damage,” said Mike Petefish, president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association. “We’ve got farmers with actual damage to their beans at no fault of their own. They didn’t use the product, they didn’t buy the product and somehow their fields got damaged.”

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has launched an investigation to determine how the pesticide was used and the scope of the damage, and so far has received more than 200 complaints and reports from farmers.

“This is consuming an immense amount of our time and resources,” said Joshua Stamper, director of the department’s pesticide and fertilizer management division. The dicamba complaints are double what the department usually fields overall in a given year.

The full extent of the damage is unknown because some farmers don’t like to report problems, Stamper said, and no one knows how the damage might affect yields this fall.

“There could be really significant economic impacts at a time when we have a down farm economy,” he said.

A group of farmers from Arkansas filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against Monsanto Co., and two other major seed and dicamba sellers, DuPont Co. and BASF SE.

Using data from state agriculture departments and university extension experts, University of Missouri weed scientist Kevin Bradley estimated that by mid-August, more than 2,200 complaints were filed in more than a dozen states. There has been damage to 3.1 million acres of soybeans with more expected by the end of summer.

Dicamba has been used for decades, but lost popularity in part because of its tendency to drift or vaporize onto neighboring fields.

But it is on the market again because weeds — such as giant and common ragweed and tall waterhemp — have mutated and become resistant to Roundup and other overused herbicides.

Monsanto’s solution was to first genetically engineer soybean seeds to tolerate the herbicide dicamba, and then create a new formulation of the herbicide to kill the weeds. The Environmental Protection Agency approved the chemical last November.

When farmers sprayed the new dicamba weedkiller formulation this spring, it worked well on fields planted with the dicamba-resistant soybean seeds, but it also drifted or vaporized and settled on nearby fields injuring other soybeans and other crops. The telltale signs are emerging leaves that become cupped or puckered, or in some cases withered and stunted.

Monsanto officials say the product should not be causing any damage to adjoining fields because the herbicide was reformulated to have minimal tendency to volatilize, or drift.

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