In early 2016, Monsanto faced a decision that would prove pivotal in what since has become a sprawling herbicide crisis, with millions of acres of crops damaged.
The Creve Coeur-based seed company had readied new genetically modified soybeans seeds, engineered for use with a powerful new weedkiller that contained a chemical called dicamba but aimed to control the substance’s tendency to drift into neighboring farmers’ fields and kill vegetation.
The company had to choose whether to immediately start selling the seeds or wait for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to sign off on the safety of the companion herbicide.
Betting on a quick approval, Monsanto sold the seeds, and farmers planted a million acres of the genetically modified soybeans in 2016. But the EPA’s deliberations on the weedkiller dragged on for another 11 months because of concerns about dicamba’s historical drift problems.
That delay left farmers who bought the seeds with no matching herbicide and three bad alternatives: Hire workers to pull weeds; use the less-effective herbicide glyphosate; or illegally spray an older version of dicamba at the risk of damage to nearby farms.
The resulting rash of illegal spraying that year damaged 42,000 acres of crops in Missouri, among the hardest hit areas, as well as swaths of crops in nine other states, according to an August 2016 advisory from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The damage this year has covered 3.6 million acres in 25 states, according to Kevin Bradley, a University of Missouri weed scientist who has tracked dicamba damage reports and produced estimates cited by the EPA.
Monsanto has blamed farmers for the illegal spraying and argued it could not have foreseen that the disjointed approval process would set off a crop-damage crisis.
But a review of regulatory records and interviews with crop scientists shows that Monsanto was repeatedly warned by crop scientists, starting as far back as 2011, of the dangers of releasing a dicamba-resistant seed without an accompanying herbicide designed to reduce drift to nearby farms.
Read more: St. Louis Post-Dispatch