Dicamba on Trial: Monsanto Decided to ‘Pull Back’ on Testing of Herbicide Prior to Roll Out

Johnathan Hettinger February 2, 2020

This photo shows the Rush Hudson Limbaugh Sr. United States Courthouse in Cape Girardeau, Mo., on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. The courthouse is hosting the trial of a lawsuit brought by a Missouri peach farmer, who alleges that Monsanto knowingly caused an "ecological disaster" to increase its profits.

Edi­tor’s Note: This sto­ry was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on the Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing and is repub­lished here under a Cre­ative Com­mons license.

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. — In Feb­ru­ary 2015, with the U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency con­sid­er­ing whether to approve a new Mon­san­to weed killer antic­i­pat­ed to be sprayed on tens of mil­lions of acres of crops, many researchers want­ed to see how the her­bi­cide would work in the field.

Uni­ver­si­ty researchers had been request­ing the tests in order to ease farm­ers’ fears about crop dam­age, and Mon­san­to sci­en­tists want­ed to con­duct tests to help draft rec­om­men­da­tions for farm­ers who would use the pesticide.

But know­ing fed­er­al reg­u­la­tors were pay­ing atten­tion to the new weed killer’s poten­tial to con­t­a­m­i­nate oth­er fields, the com­pa­ny decid­ed to pull back” on test­ing to allow dicam­ba to have a clean slate,” accord­ing to an email from Dr. Tina Bhak­ta, who, in her role as glob­al chem­istry expan­sion lead for Mon­san­to, was respon­si­ble for obtain­ing EPA reg­is­tra­tion for the weed killer.

The email was includ­ed in Bhakta’s video tes­ti­mo­ny Thurs­day in the U.S. Dis­trict Court in Cape Girardeau, Mis­souri, in a civ­il law­suit filed by Bad­er Farms, the largest peach farm in the state, against Ger­man agribusi­ness giants BASF and Bay­er, which bought St. Louis-based Mon­san­to in 2018.

Mon­san­to genet­i­cal­ly engi­neered soy­bean and cot­ton seeds to with­stand being sprayed by dicam­ba, a very effec­tive but volatile weed killer devel­oped by chem­i­cal com­pa­ny BASF in the 1950s to com­bat the grow­ing prob­lem of weed resis­tance. Both com­pa­nies also released accom­pa­ny­ing her­bi­cides designed to min­i­mize con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, known as off-tar­get move­ment,” that could harm sen­si­tive crops, such as non-tol­er­ant soy­beans, cot­ton and spe­cial­ty crops.

Togeth­er, the new dicam­ba-tol­er­ant crops and accom­pa­ny­ing her­bi­cide were to be the largest biotech­nol­o­gy launch in Mon­san­to history.

Bad­er Farms, which says it is no longer a sus­tain­able busi­ness because of off-tar­get move­ment of dicam­ba harm­ing its orchards, alleges that the com­pa­nies released their dicam­ba-tol­er­ant sys­tems inten­tion­al­ly to cre­ate drift issues in order to increase their prof­its. The law­suit is one of many filed by farm­ers against the com­pa­nies over the issue.

The com­pa­nies deny the alle­ga­tions, blam­ing the off-tar­get move­ment of dicam­ba on farm­ers apply­ing dicam­ba off-label, weath­er events and oth­er issues.

Antic­i­pat­ing the wide­spread use of the new dicam­ba for­mu­la­tions, Jason Nor­swor­thy, a weed sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Arkansas, asked Mon­san­to for a lit­tle bit of its her­bi­cide for­mu­la­tion — Xtendi­max with Vapor­Grip — to test its volatil­i­ty. But the com­pa­ny told Nor­swor­thy it would have dif­fi­cul­ty pro­duc­ing enough dicam­ba for both him and its inde­pen­dent tests, accord­ing to an email pro­duced in court on Thursday.

Joe Sand­brink, a 35-year Mon­san­to employ­ee, didn’t think much of that expla­na­tion when he for­ward­ed the email to a fel­low mem­ber of the tech­nol­o­gy devel­op­ment team.

Haha­ha dif­fi­cul­ty in pro­duc­ing enough prod­uct for field test­ing. Haha­ha bull­shit,” Sand­brink wrote in an April 11, 2015, email dis­cussed in court on Thursday.

Bhak­ta tes­ti­fied on Thurs­day that she did not know of any short­age of dicamba.

Much of the case, which was filed in Nov. 2016, revolves around Monsanto’s deci­sion to release dicam­ba-tol­er­ant seeds with­out an accom­pa­ny­ing her­bi­cide in 2015 and 2016. In those years, many farm­ers alleged­ly ille­gal­ly sprayed old­er ver­sions of dicam­ba, harm­ing farms includ­ing Bad­er Farms.

The EPA approved the new, alleged­ly less volatile her­bi­cides — Monsanto’s Xtendi­max and BASF’s Enge­nia — for use in the 2017 grow­ing sea­son. Still, com­plaints about off-tar­get move­ment of dicam­ba con­tin­ued. In 2017, more than 3.6 mil­lion acres of non-resis­tant soy­beans were dam­aged, accord­ing to an esti­mate from Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri pro­fes­sor Kevin Bradley. Com­plaints have con­tin­ued in sub­se­quent years.

We antic­i­pat­ed it might hap­pen,” Dr. Boyd Carey, region­al agron­o­my lead at Bay­er Crop Sci­ence, which bought Mon­san­to in 2018, tes­ti­fied on Wednes­day. Carey over­saw the claims process for Monsanto’s launch of the new her­bi­cide. Mon­san­to received more than 3,000 com­plaints in 2017.

Carey and Bhak­ta both tes­ti­fied Thurs­day that the com­pa­ny main­tains there are no issues with volatil­i­ty of Xtendi­max, as long as the label’s instruc­tions are followed.

Nor­swor­thy was far from the only per­son ask­ing to test dicam­ba, accord­ing to tes­ti­mo­ny from Bhakta.

Bhak­ta tes­ti­fied that she did not remem­ber a meet­ing where she trav­eled to Norsworthy’s office in Fayet­teville, Arkansas, to dis­cuss the issue. She also tes­ti­fied that she did not remem­ber the details of a meet­ing with Dr. Stan­ley Culpep­per, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia, in Athens, Geor­gia, to dis­cuss his request for dicam­ba for volatil­i­ty test­ing. Nor did Bhak­ta remem­ber an email where she agreed with oth­er Mon­san­to offi­cials that it would be good to invite Culpep­per to come to Monsanto’s own volatil­i­ty test­ing in south­ern Geor­gia to throw him something.”

It was 2015. I meet with many peo­ple. I don’t recall this one,” Bhak­ta said. But emails show Bhak­ta was there, as well as includ­ed on many oth­er emails dis­cussing the requests from Culpep­per and Norsworthy.

The two volatil­i­ty stud­ies that Mon­san­to sub­mit­ted to the EPA were a 9.6‑acre test over cot­ton in Texas on June 8, 2015, and a 3.4‑acre test over bare ground in Geor­gia on May 5, 2015, she tes­ti­fied. No tests were con­duct­ed over soybeans.

In fact, the com­pa­ny vetoed its own employ­ees — inter­est­ed in test­ing to help devel­op rec­om­men­da­tions for farm­ers who would even­tu­al­ly use the prod­uct — from test­ing the Xtendi­max with Vapor­Grip dicam­ba her­bi­cide in its own seed trials.

I think I would veto this one, as we are lim­it­ing all use of Vapor­Grip this year,” wrote Bhak­ta in response to a Dec. 2014 request from Mon­san­to researchers request­ing the testing.

Bhak­ta was also a mem­ber of a team that was told to reach out to BASF to ask the com­pa­ny to lim­it test­ing, she tes­ti­fied. Bhak­ta said the com­pa­ny was con­cerned about tests being con­duct­ed out­side of good lab­o­ra­to­ry prac­tice” though the stud­ies that Mon­san­to had sub­mit­ted were con­duct­ed under those practices.

At the time, Bhak­ta and her boss, Susan Mar­ti­no-Catt, the direc­tor of Glob­al Reg­u­la­to­ry Sci­ences at Mon­san­to, were under a great deal of pres­sure from the exec­u­tive team, accord­ing to emails. The com­pa­ny was plan­ning on a 2016 launch of the her­bi­cide, but it was not approved until Nov. 2016.

In a Feb­ru­ary 2015 email, Mar­ti­no-Catt wrote they had got­ten a clear mes­sage” from the exec­u­tive team that we must do every­thing we can to get the registration.”

Some­times,” Mar­ti­no-Catt wrote, this means not hav­ing all the paper­work in place.”

Bhak­ta replied with a smi­ley face.

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Johnathan Het­tinger is a jour­nal­ist based in Liv­ingston, Mon­tana. Orig­i­nal­ly from Cen­tral Illi­nois and a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois, he has worked at the Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing, the Liv­ingston Enter­prise and the (Cham­paign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Con­tact Johnathan at jhett93@​gmail.​com and fol­low him on Twit­ter @jhett93.
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