Monsanto’s New Weed Killer, Dicamba, Divides Farmers


The ever growing use of stronger and stronger poisons defines Industrial Agriculture.

This article tells how farmers who try to avoid using the GMO seeds that are bred to withstand these poisons have their crops ruined. This is one small example of the vast damage Industrial Agriculture is doing to the health of farmland, habitats, wildlife, our precious farming and ranching culture – and to public health.

NOTE: this post initially appeared on on September 21, 2017

Twenty-five million acres have been planted with genetically modified seeds to encourage the spraying of the chemical. Farmers worry about damage to crops.

Farmers planted a new kind of seed on 25 million acres of soybean and cotton fields this year. Developed by Monsanto, the seeds, genetically modified to be resistant to a weed killer called dicamba, are one of the biggest product releases in the company’s history.

But the seeds and the weed killer have turned some farmers — often customers of Monsanto, which sells both — against the company and alarmed regulators.

Farmers who have not bought the expensive new seeds, which started to appear last year, are joining lawsuits, claiming that their crops have been damaged by dicamba that drifted onto their farms. Arkansas announced a 120-day ban of the weed killer this summer, and it is considering barring its use next year after mid-April. Missouri briefly barred its sale in July. And the Environmental Protection Agency, not known for its aggressiveness under President Trump, is weighing its own action.

“I’m a fan of Monsanto. I’ve bought a lot of their products,” said Brad Williams, a Missouri farmer. “I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that there would be some kind of evil nefarious plot to put a defective product out there intentionally.”

Yet he has been dismayed both by damage to his soybean crops, which were within a wide area of farmland harmed by dicamba, and by the impact even to trees on his property. Leaves, he said, were “so deformed you couldn’t even really identify the differences between them.”

Mr. Kemp in a field of soybeans on his farm. Credit: Brandon Dill for The New York Times

But weeds are becoming more resistant to Roundup, so the industry is developing seeds that are tolerant to more herbicides. Environmentalists and some weed scientists worry that making seeds resistant to more weed killers will increase the use of pesticides.

Monsanto and another company, BASF, have also developed a new, less volatile version of dicamba, which has been around for decades. DowDuPont, which has its own dicamba-resistant seed, is introducing crops resistant to 2,4-D, another old herbicide.

Monsanto formally challenged Arkansas’ ban earlier this month, insisting that 99 percent of its customers were satisfied. It plans to double the use of its new dicamba-resistant soybeans seeds to 40 million acres by next year.

“New technologies take some time to learn,” said Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s vice president for global strategy. “Thus far, what we’ve seen in the field, the vast majority, more than three-quarters of them, has been due to not following the label.”

The company has also claimed that Arkansas’ decision was “tainted by the involvement” of two scientists tied to a rival, Bayer. Considering that Bayer is acquiring Monsanto, it was an awkward step. Bayer called the men “pre-eminent weed scientists.”

Some foresaw drift problems with dicamba.

For years, Steve Smith, once a member of a dicamba advisory panel set up by Monsanto, urged the company to change course. Mr. Smith, the head of agriculture at Red Gold, a tomato processor based in Indiana, aired his concerns at a congressional hearing in 2010.

“The widespread use of dicamba is incompatible with Midwestern agriculture,” he said in his testimony. “Even the best, the most conscientious farmers cannot control where this weed killer will end up.”

Xtend is a Monsanto brand of genetically modified soybean. Credit: Brandon Dill for The New York Times

Monsanto eventually removed him from its advisory panel, citing what it called a “conflict of interest.” Mr. Smith had helped start a coalition of farm interests critical of dicamba and 2,4-D.

Mr. Partridge said such internal alarms had not been ignored.

“Those concerns are what led to us developing the low-volatility formulation” of the herbicide, he said.

Dicamba does kill weeds. Brent Schorfheide, a farmer in southern Illinois, said it had been extremely effective on those no longer responsive to Roundup.

“It cleaned everything up,” he said. “Without it, our fields would be a disaster.”

But some farmers say they face a difficult choice — either buy the new genetically modified seeds or run the risk that their soybeans would be damaged more by a neighbor’s spraying of weed killers than by the weeds themselves.

“If you don’t buy Xtend, you’re going to be hurt,” said Michael Kemp, a Missouri farmer, referring to the brand name of Monsanto’s seeds.

The leaves on his soybeans puckered and curled after they were exposed to dicamba, a problem known as cupping. The cost will not be clear until after harvest.

“You’re going to have to buy their product because their chemical is drifting around,” he said, adding that growing crops that are not modified is becoming impossible. “The people who are growing non-G.M.O., which I did for a while, they’re just left out in left field, I guess.”

Steve Smith, a member of an advisory panel to Monsanto, spoke out against the weed killer dicamba, and the company removed him from the panel. Credit: Kelley Jordan Schuyler for The New York Times

A pivotal debate centers on how damage is caused.

Monsanto cites particles that drift in the wind when the product is sprayed improperly or when unapproved versions of dicamba are used. That can be addressed through training and enforcement.

But another problem is as much to blame, many farmers and weed scientists say, one that raises questions about the entire product program.

ecause genetically modified crops allow dicamba to be sprayed later in the year, after crops emerge from the ground, and in hotter and more humid weather, the chemical is susceptible to what is known as “volatility” — it can turn into a gas and drift onto whatever happens to be nearby.

While Monsanto and BASF modified the new versions of the herbicide they are selling, they have not entirely solved the problem. So much dicamba is being used that even a small percentage of drift can cause widespread damage.

Arkansas and Missouri said they were still investigating complaints. The Missouri Department of Agriculture referred questions on the extent of the crop damage to Kevin Bradley, a weed scientist at the University of Missouri, who said more than three million acres had been affected.

In an email, he said that particles drifting in the wind during spraying “may have been the largest reason, but not by much,” adding, “I believe similar or perhaps slightly lower percentages can be attributed to volatility.”

In a statement, the E.P.A. said, “This is still an ongoing investigation and we cannot speculate on what the underlying causes of damage may be.”

A field of soybeans in Missouri. Farmers who have not bought new genetically modified seeds say their crops have been damaged by weed killers sprayed by others that drifted onto their farms. Credit Brandon Dill for The New York Times

Odessa Hines, a spokeswoman for BASF, said, “There appears to be no single cause that explains all of the alleged symptomology,” adding, “We believe it’s premature to make final decisions.”

Monsanto has put the onus on farmers. In a letter to Arkansas’ governor last week, a top company executive said problems were “all readily correctable through additional training, education and enforcement.” The company has already trained about 50,000 people to apply the weed killer properly.

The instructions are quite complex, discouraging spraying both when it is too windy or when it is not windy enough. Some farmers are chafing at the company’s approach.

“We may be rural hicks, but we’re not stupid,” said Kenneth Qualls, an Arkansas farmer who is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits. “We know how to apply chemicals. They are going to blame it on the farmer to reduce their liability.”

Health risks are also a contentious topic. The industry says dicamba and 2,4-D are long established. But Charles Benbrook, a weed scientist partly funded by the organic industry, said, “For both dicamba and 2,4-D, the reproductive risks and birth defects” are “most worrisome.”

Dicamba is only one issue facing Monsanto. Public officials in Europe are divided about reauthorizing Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate. In the United States, Monsanto faces litigation over cancer claims related to glyphosate. That litigation has raised questions of ghostwriting of both journalism and academic papers by the company.

But dicamba is arguably the greatest challenge.

“It’s really divided the farming community,” Mr. Qualls said. The husband of one of his cousins was shot dead in a dispute over dicamba drift, underlining the bitterness of the issue. A farmhand has been charged with murder in the case.

“It shocked the whole community and really the whole state,” Mr. Qualls said, adding that he was surprised there hadn’t been more violence.

“Some of these people who got victimized by this product are probably going to go out of business because of it,” he said. “They’ll have to put up their equipment for auction, and the people bidding on it will be the ones who put them out of business.”

Correction: September 21, 2017
An earlier version of this article misstated the timing of Monsanto’s formal challenge to Arkansas’ ban of the weed killer dicamba. The challenge was made earlier in September, not last week.

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  • I don’t farm, but I am surrounded by farm fields (GMO) & I am raising bee’s & livestock & vegetable garden, so maybe I’m clueless. But why don’t these farmers get together while they’re out having coffee & see how many of them can work together to get back to growing Non-GMO crops once again? Yes, I know the “benefits” of raising GMO crap (my husband works at a sugar factory & I hear how much more pounds of sugar beets are raised on less land), but I also know the damage it causes to the land, the pollinators, the end product affecting people & livestock alike.

    But instead of letting Monsanto or Bayer control the farmers & what they grow or use, why not take back that control?

    From talking to other farmers in my area, the cost of GMO seeds is not cheaper than buying the “heirloom/heritage” seeds.

    I realize that farmers would have to go back to dealing with weeds the old fashion way (heaven forbid) & hoe the fields. But come on…..its way safer (& cheaper) then buying even more modified seed that’s not good for us, to be able to spray stronger weed killer on (which isn’t good for us either) them.

    When does it or will it stop?

    When do you we stop allowing Monsanto & others to control our food? Before or after everything created in the lab? (Like the hamburger patties & meat balls & fish?)

    • Over 60-years ago Willam Albrecht, the father of soil fertility warned:

      “NPK formulas, (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) as legislated and enforced by State Departments of Agriculture, mean malnutrition, attack by insects, bacteria and fungi, weed takeover, crop loss in dry weather, and general loss of mental acuity in the population, leading to degenerative metabolic disease and early death.

      He was dismissed at the time but when you look at the long list of diseases – including Alzheimers – with which glyphosate (Roundup) and other farming chemicals are associated he had it right. Middle class American men are now dying younger than they used to.

      American farming is stuck on a treadmill to nowhere, trying to offset the destruction of soil fertility with ever more potent – and costly – chemicals, seeds and poisons. Farmers brag about yield per acre, but don’t mention profit per acre which is razor thin even with huge subsidies. Regenerative farming could restore soil health and farm profits – along with human health.

      The biggest obstacle to breaking out of this downward spiral is that the giant companies control farming including our agriculture agencies and universities. It took Teddy Roosevelt’s Trust Busting to correct the monopolies in the early 1900’s, let us hope something like this will happen again.

      Thanks for writing.

      • You’re right Alzheimer’s, autism, cancers as a whole, have increased astronomically over just the last 20 yrs. When I was a kid those numbers were low, 1 in every 1500+- kids was born with Down’s Syndrome or autism. The last I saw it was 1 in 25 or 50.

        I am a genealogist researcher (among other things)& one thing I’ve noticed in the 30+ years of doing that, is that women back in the 1700-early 1900’s were having kids into their mid-40’s….most if not all where healthy. From the mid-40’s we started adding hormone’s & other supplements in to our livestock feed, then we created refrigeration & that started on the preservatives for the stuff on the shelves to last even longer, more sugar was added to stuff. The chemicals in the boxed & frozen but prepared meals, our drinks, have chemicals that make up or are part the of the Antifreeze chemical.

        We used DDT for years, then it was pulled. Now we have GMO crops that have been proven to cause cancer & other brain issues, but we don’t make them stop producing. Farmers today want more product (who wouldn’t) with less acreage (which is why the Sugar beet farmers (at least in my area) have jumped on the GMO sugar beet bandwagon. I’ll have to get the numbers from my husband again, but they are producing a higher yield on less acreage & they have no desire to stop. They are also owners of our local factory, so they not only get paid for their harvest, but get a dividend for all the products made from their crop (juice, sugar, pellet/shredded beets for livestock, etc)they’re making more now then they were when they were harvesting the “heirloom/heritage” sugar beet.

        I don’t know if Trump would pull a Teddy, but I don’t foresee anyone else doing it if it happens.

  • I sense that the farming comunity is again at the crossroads of destruction, as in the dust bowl disaster. Will thinking take a better turn this time? Will the health of each other and our land win out? I hope it does, I encourage those who feel trapped into the Monsanto seed rush to reach out to their legislators. Mother Nature is and always will be the great equalizer. Better to work with her. It pains me to read the words of Mr. Albrecht.

    We must do beter.

    • I agree Jan. Albrecht was a solid thinker, here is another of his common sense observations – which is on point for those who seek new poisons and wonder drugs for the diseases and declines created by their old poisons and horrible practices:

      The use of sprays is an act of desperation in a dying agriculture. It’s not the overpowering invader we must fear but the weakened condition of the victim.” – William Albrecht

      What to do? Treat the cause not the symptom: You should suggest to your reps that they break up the giant companies that now dominate every industry in the US. Often these are trans-national conglomerates. Most of our legislators with just a few exceptions take money from them. But the near-monopoly control of industry is the main problem with US business including agriculture. And, the mergers & acquisitions (M&A) process that created these amounted to the cannibalization of our jobs and industries. Break them up like Teddy Roosevelt did.

      In farm thinking about chemicals this will be an uphill fight given the pro-chemical mentality the permeates the system. The agro-chemical giants dominate the agriculture departments of our universities, establishing curriculum. These agriculture departments host the wildlife departments. Since World War II we have trained our farmers, ranchers, agency and conservation personnel to think farming, ranching and wildlife ‘management’ are dependent on chemicals to replace natural soil fertility and eliminate ‘competition’.

      Between (1) ongoing M&A’s, (2) monopolies and their money which controls our universities, agencies and legislators, and, (3) 4-generations of practitioners trained to rely on chemicals there is massive resistance to regenerative practices and smaller businesses including farms and ranches.

      Nevertheless make your thoughts known. The 2016 election shows what average people can achieve when they band together.

      Thanks for writing.

      • I agree Jan & Chris…..

        But I don’t think we’re going to get any help from the politicians to break up these monopolies like Teddy did, because many if not most….at least mid-west to west are farmer & ranchers & they don’t want to lose money.

        It’s also going to take a LOT of years to undo the chemical damage done to our soil by the seeds alone, but by the chemicals constantly adding to the soil.You’re not going to get (many) farm kids out there to hoe the ground, heck even where I’m at I don’t see kids out irrigating anymore.

        And on top of what you said Chris….the other hurdle we have to get over & its only getting worse is the “Well, we’ve always done it this way” frame of mind. And in these parts…..its thick as molasses.

        Years ago when I was going for my AAS in Agri-Business & Rangeland Mgmt. I was in a Plant Science class & we got to talk about “traditions” & the pros & cons of burning stubble & the majority of the comments (even after the Professor gave them the info as to why its not doing any good) the first thing out of most of the guys’ mouths were….”Well, we’ve always done it that way, my great grandfather, grandfather & my dad.” So I asked…..So? why continue to do something that doesn’t benefit the soil, just because? They couldn’t or wouldn’t answer that.

        We’re stuck on a hamster wheel, don’t have any idea of why we farm the way we farm, we just do it because….they follow the crowd.

        Unfortunately, its going to take a farmer like in the above article to probably start finding ways off their hamster wheel & figuring out how to become better farmers, getting back in touch with their soil & stop being lead around by the nose my Monsanto & Bayer.

        Or like Jan said……we’re going to face another dust bowl crisis that could be far worse then the first one & it won’t be limited to the midwest either.

        I understand battling weeds, I have 6 ft thistle that I am trying to get under control without spraying 2-4D or Roundup (tempted though) that the previous 2 owners of this place have let run amok (I have like 4 variety’s of thistle all over my small homestead).

        It’ll take (is taking) a lot of work to combat the weeds & I think that’s what a lot of these farmers are afraid of. They have A/C tractors that they can fire up & run through a field to spray it (neighbors do that frequently), instead of rounding up the family, the kids’ friends & hire a few to go out & hoe their own fields…that’s too much work.

        We’re doomed…..especially if we depend on the politican’s for any kind of help.


        • Hello Jan and Allí,

          Here are my thoughts on the political/economic points that you have raised.

          Monopolies can’t exist without subsidies and protection. Our agricultural system furnishes these in spades. The monopolies will never give these up willingly. Government must again enforce the rules against ‘combinations in restraint of trade’ which worked so well for 100-years.

          Monopolies are unprofitable compared to smaller businesses. Dismantling monopolies isn’t anti-capital or anti-profit: When Teddy Roosevelt (TR) broke up Standard Oil (SO) – which at the time owned 80% of the US oil business – into 34 companies, the stock value of the companies doubled in a short period because their profits grew so fast once they were broken up.

          Yes, small farmers and ranchers like their subsidies but most lose money; they would rather be profitable. Recreate a competitive market place in which small producers can prosper and subsidies will not be needed. Circle Ranch cattle values are established by feedlots into which feeds are delivered far below their cost of production – because of subsidies to the farmers that grow the crops like corn and then dump surplus production into cattle feed, or on third world countries, or burn it (40%) as ethanol. Who thinks it is cheaper to feed grain grown and trucked from far away to cattle forced into gigantic feedlots with all the problems and expenses this creates than to let cattle graze empty pastures? Agricultural subsidies have wrecked ranching economics.

          Hybridization of plants and animals is good if it works with nature. GMOs are not inherently unhealthy – although the genetic changes to corn that keep it from absorbing glyphosate also keeps it from absorbing nutrients. What causes Alzheimers is the glyphosate and other chemical and antibiotic residue which is now in most everything we eat, drink and wear. The chemicals with which these plants are grown is where most of the problem arises. The damage done to the micro-organic life that controls our bodies is probably the vector.

          Break the GMO-Chemical conglomerates up – like TR did with the SO and others – and the many spin-off companies will compete like the 30+ SO spin-offs did. When forced to compete, they will develop plants that will grow where it is dry, withstand weeds, taste better, be more nutritious and so forth. As matters stand the agrochemical monopolies use GMOs to increase chemical sales. The agrochemical giants who own the seed companies that make these GMOs will never develop plants that do not need chemicals because that undercuts the monopolies’ core business.

          Concerning monopolies, Trump gets it. He already tried to stop the AT&T/Time Warner merger but the courts ruled against him so now he is appealing the decision. The courts appear captured by this crazy neoconservative idea that free markets sanction monopolies. Lots of my ‘conservative’ friends have bought this mistaken idea, but Trump doesn’t believe this: It is the opposite of what he and I were taught about monopolies at Wharton in the 60s: monopolies raise prices, lower wages, reduce innovation and, without their anticompetitive powers, lose money. Government rules prohibiting monopolies (or oligopolies) were TR’s greatest economic accomplishment.

          Within a market freed from a handful of companies and government agencies, people like us can address the problems you raise – applying William Albrecht’s common sense ideas where the rubber hits the road.

          Thanks again.

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