Opinion: EPA needs to stop Monsanto dicamba sales for 2018 growing season

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Dave Dickey

OK quick show of hands.  Who reading this blog likes devil’s food cake?  Yeah, I do too.  Of course, there is the cake itself ,which should be moist and oh-so-chocolaty.

But it’s the frosting that puts it over the top.  Rich, thick, dark chocolate goodness right?

And that, my friends, is Monsanto’s current plight with its embattled dicamba ready soybeans.

Last year, I blogged about how Monsanto commercialized and marketed dicamba resistant soybeans, the cake in this metaphor, without the frosting – a promised dicamba formulation not prone to vaporization onto neighbors’ non-dicamba tolerant soybean fields.

To no one’s surprise Monsanto’s early release of dicamba-ready soybeans was a disaster.  Producers used whatever dicamba they had at hand in 2016 with predicable results, killing neighbor’s crops and sparking a raft of lawsuits.

No matter how many cakes you make, without the frosting all ya’ got is bread.

I blogged earlier that I thought Monsanto rushed dicamba ready soybeans onto the market in 2016 for one reason only – profit.

Well that strategy paid off.  The company’s net sales were up 1 percent to $4.2 billion in the quarter ending May 31 from a year ago, partly due to higher U.S. sales of Xtend soybeans.

But now the other shoe has dropped and the results are alarming.

That’s because Monsanto’s dicamba formulation that was supposed to stay where it’s sprayed has instead drifted on the winds this growing season, killing millions of acres of crops.

Even more unsettling is that Monsanto rushed to get dicamba to market, bypassing independent testing before the Environmental Protection Agency gave the herbicide a green light.

Typically, Big Ag companies send their internal test results to independent researchers and regulators for review as well as provide product samples to colleges and universities for additional testing.

Monsanto sent XtendiMax with VaporGrip dicamba to the University of Illinois, the University of Missouri and the University of Arkansas for testing.

And, oh yeah, with a contract that said the universities could under no circumstances (nada, none, zero, zippo) perform volatility testing on the herbicide.

Let that sink in for a moment.

The contracts specifically forbid the universities from testing for the one key thing Monsanto was claiming – that its dicamba would not drift where it was not wanted.

Without independent testing that Monsanto’s dicamba actually worked as advertised, the EPA rubber stamped the herbicide solely on Monsanto’s word last fall.

Why not test for volatility?

In stunning testimony before a hearing of the Arkansas Plant Board’s Pesticide Committee in the summer of 2016, Monsanto agronomist Boyd Carey was reported to say universities were not given the chance “to test VaporGrip in fear that the results may jeopardize the federal label.”

Monsanto Vice President of Global Strategy Scott Partridge was even more blunt saying, “To get meaningful data takes a long, long time.  This product needed to get into the hands of growers.”

I understand Monsanto’s fear.

The EPA approved label is 4,550 words long with detailed complex instructions including that XtendiMax can only be applied with wind speeds between 3 miles per hour to15 miles per hour, that growers must keep sprayers within 24 inches of the ground, that the size of the droplets must be adjusted to match temperature conditions, and that after application, spraying equipment must be rinsed out, rinsed out, rinsed out.

Yeah, three times.

Seasoned researchers say they’ve never seen a label quite like it, with such a laundry list of what to do and don’t do.

And if that ain’t enough, field tests this summer suggest Monsanto’s vapor-lock dicamba is no such thing.

Three universities have concluded that the new dicamba herbicide can “volatilize and float to other fields as long as 72 hours after application.

The EPA, certainly sporting a new black eye for its bungling, last month suggested it might (yeah might) limit farmer’s use of Monsanto’s dicamba to pre-emergence, which would negate much of the herbicide’s effectiveness to killing weeds.

Well if the EPA has any backbone, it will pull the herbicide off the shelves until someone with certainty can show Monsanto’s shiny new product actually did work.  Because right now there are serious doubts.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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