Year in Brief: Dicamba drift hits farmers hard as Monsanto juggles thorny issues

Dicamba continued to make an imprint on Missouri throughout 2017, with unintended drift of the herbicide leading to widespread complaints of crop damage, as well as giving rise to legislation, lawsuits and fines. And dicamba issues were just one a few big story lines for Monsanto, the Creve Couer-based seed and agrochemical maker, which also juggled a protracted merger process and a controversy over another herbicide throughout 2017 and into the new year.

The Year in Brief looks at the business stories that were most important to Missouri in 2017, and that will continue to shape the state in 2018 and beyond.

Dicamba damage

Following a rash of reported crop damage blamed on dicamba in 2016, the Missouri Legislature took steps in early 2017 to prevent misuse of the herbicide. Rep. Don Rone, a Republican from the Bootheel, where farmers had borne the brunt of that damage, introduced a series of bills in January. By the end of March, Gov. Eric Greitens approved a law allowing the Missouri Department of Agriculture to levy fines for anyone damaging another farmer’s crops, land or property with the improper use of herbicides. 

Meanwhile, farmers in 10 states, including Missouri, filed a class-action lawsuit against Monsanto over alleged damage to crops from illegal dicamba use by growers. Another suit later in the year accused the company of sales practices that led to dicamba problems.

Come summer, widespread crop damage began to appear. Missouri officials enacted a ban on the herbicide, partially lifting the ban two weeks later after receiving “additional safeguards” from Monsanto and other companies.

As instances of dicamba drift and the amount of acreage damaged by it climbed higher — with Missouri among the states hardest hit — reports emerged of Monsanto’s unusual rollout of new products at the heart of the problem.

In the fall, the EPA unveiled new restrictions, classifying dicamba as a restricted-use pesticide for the 2018 growing season. Following the EPA’s classification, Missouri officials restricted use of dicamba products manufactured by BASF, Mosanto and DuPont.

As the year closed, state agriculture officials began collecting the first round of fines from 2016 investigations into dicamba misuse and pledged to continue investigating alleged 2017 misuse.

Bayer deal

Meanwhile, on the M&A front, after Monsanto agreed to a $66 billion buyout by Bayer in 2016, the two companies spent 2017 navigating a maze of regulatory roadblocks that will stretch into 2018.

In February, Bayer, the German chemical and pharmaceutical maker, signaled that takeover could face delays as regulators pressed for more information. At the company’s annual meeting in April, Bayer CEO Werner Baumann said that Monsanto’s controversial reputation presented “a major challenge.”

Summer brought preliminary bids from BASF and Syngenta for assets that Bayer planned to sell to win regulatory approval of the deal. In August, the European Commission began an in-depth investigation of the takeover, noting its concern over competition in pesticide and seed markets. Bayer eventually asked regulators for an extension to January 2018. 

In November, European regulators resumed the antitrust review, setting a new deadline of March 5, 2018.

Glyphosate issues

Monsanto also contended with challenges stemming from glyphosate, the active ingredient in the company’s Roundup weedkiller. In early summer, California added glyphosate to its list of chemicals known to cause cancer. The designation followed a 2015 study by the World Health Organization that concluded that the chemical was “probably carcinogenic.”

Monsanto vowed to fight the decision, calling it “unwarranted on the basis of science and the law.” By mid-November, multiple U.S. farmers groups joined Monsanto in filing a federal lawsuit against the designation. 

Before the year ended, Monsanto received two pieces of welcome news on the glyphosate front: the European Commission extended its approval of the herbicide for five years, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.

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