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Farmers Reportedly Spraying Older Version of Dicamba, Drift Killing Crops


Farmers in southern U.S. states have long battled weeds and destructive bugs, but this year they face a new threat: their neighbors.

They say some growers are illegally spraying a powerful herbicide that is damaging hundreds of thousands of crop acres in Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee, a trend that regulators, farmers and academics link to Monsanto Co.'s introduction this year of a new variety of genetically modified soybean.

Monsanto's new biotech soybean was designed to resist herbicides, including a powerful chemical called dicamba, long used to kill weeds but prone to drifting into neighboring fields. Monsanto sold farmers the new seeds before it was able to provide an updated version of the herbicide, designed not to drift. That new herbicide is still awaiting regulatory approval.

Philip Miller, vice president of global regulatory affairs for Monsanto, said the company "took quite a bit of effort" instructing farmers and pesticide dealers to avoid spraying older versions of dicamba over the new biotech beans, and the vast majority of farmers have complied. Monsanto doesn't manufacture older versions of dicamba.

The situation illustrates the potential pitfalls of genetically engineered crops and the regulatory system that governs plant genes and related chemical products. Damage to nearby fields could slash those farmers' crop yields at a time when U.S. farmers already are on pace for their leanest year since 2002.

Already-low crop prices, advancing weeds that require more-powerful sprays to kill, and low fines for illegal spraying have motivated farmers to break the law, regulators and academics say.

Some also question what they say is Monsanto's premature launch of new biotech soybeans, without the green light for the accompanying herbicide. Grain traders earlier this year also protested because Monsanto marketed the soybeans before receiving import approval from the European Union. The EU approved the soybeans last month.

A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency said the agency is investigating dicamba misuse and crop damage in the region, and that its findings would "inform" its final decision on approving Monsanto's new version of the herbicide, expected late summer or early fall of this year.

In the meantime, farmers already have been spraying the new Monsanto soybeans with older formulations of dicamba sold by other companies, according to researchers and regulators, and farmers like Mike Wallace are paying the price.

Mr. Wallace, who grows about 5,000 acres of soybeans, cotton and corn near Monette, Ark., noticed puckered leaves on his soybean plants in June, a telltale sign of dicamba damage. He estimated a hit to about 40% of his soybean fields, which aren't engineered to resist dicamba, and has submitted a complaint to state officials.

Farmers need tougher herbicides like dicamba to eradicate weeds that have developed resistance to more widely used sprays, said Mr. Wallace, but if Monsanto had held off on selling the new soybeans until its new version of dicamba had approval, "we wouldn't have this problem."

Some state legislators are weighing tighter restrictions on dicamba following reports of damage to an estimated 200,000 acres of crops ranging from soybeans and watermelon to peaches and tomatoes, according to estimates from agricultural officials in Arkansas and Missouri.

Missouri's Department of Agriculture has received about 115 complaints alleging dicamba damage to crops, centered on a four-county area in the southeast corner of the state called the "bootheel," and about 25 such complaints have been submitted to the Arkansas Plant Board, which investigates charges of pesticide drift and assesses fines. Tennessee state officials are investigating 44 such complaints.

Monsanto's Dr. Miller declined to comment on proposed state-level regulations on dicamba, but he said: "This is one where we've been open we would like to see the EPA moving quicker," he said.

Chemicals giant BASF SE, which also is working to bring a new form of dicamba to market, said: "We constantly reinforce the need to read and follow label directions in our publications and farmer training."

While state regulators can fine farmers for illegal spraying, they can't compensate neighboring farmers for losses, a separate process typically worked out between neighbors on country roads, or through civil lawsuits. And some believe the existing fines are too low: In Arkansas, for instance, the maximum is $1,000.

"The farmers are flat out telling us that 'we'll write you a check,'" said Susie Nichols, assistant director of enforcement for the Arkansas State Plant Board.

Bob Scott, professor of weed science at the University of Arkansas, said: "I know we're in a tough situation with [weeds], but at a time when we're kind of fighting to keep federal regulations to a minimum and we're asking for a speedier registration process, when stuff like this happens, it doesn't help our cause a whole lot,"

He added: "It's a black eye for agriculture as a whole."

Source: Dow Jones