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Dicamba-Proof Soybeans?

Posted in Food Policy,Food Safety,Our Blog on March 22, 2019

The United States produces a lot of soybeans – so many, in fact, that we’re producing more these days than ever before. In 2018, the country produced more than four and a half billion soybeans: that’s more than 272 billion pounds, for those of you keeping score at home. That’s enough soybeans to make almost half a trillion pounds of tofu, provided that you’ve got the water to do it. A lot of beans, in as many words. This is why dicamba-proof soybeans could be a game changer.

This hitherto unheard-of level of soybean production can be partially attributed to new and better farming technologies: better fertilizers, mechanized equipment, and soybean strains that have been genetically tweaked. Not all of this new tech has been all good for the farmers, however. We’ve written before on Make Food Safe about a pesticide called dicamba: it’s extraordinarily effective at killing most plants except for a specific strain of soybeans that’s been genetically modified to resist it.

The problem with dicamba is that it doesn’t generally stay where it’s been put. It is a is a benzoic acid herbicide. It can be applied to the leaves or to the soil. If you plant a field with dicamba-resistant Xtend soybeans, then spray that field down with dicamba, it should be between you and the weeds: they’re all gonna die, sure, but it won’t affect anyone else. Dicamba seems to have other plans. Periodically, it drifts into the fields of neighbors, or neighbors of neighbors. Wherever it drifts, it kills what it touches. Everything from unmodified soybeans to sycamore trees are at risk of shriveling up and dying from dicamba wandering in on the wind.

Now, a new lawsuit is claiming that Monsanto, the Bayer-owned agri-giant that owns both dicamba and the lines of seeds resistant to it, is being sued for violating anti-trust law. According to a report from NPR detailing the suit and the fight against it, Bayer is asking for the lawsuit to be dismissed.

According to a press release from Monsanto, Xtend soybeans account for 60 – 75 percent of the market. We may be able to attribute this to their virtues, at least in part: the dicamba-resistant qualities of Xtend do a lot to simplify the herbicide-application regime of farmers, which is an attractive quality.

Another reason for Xtend’s domination of the market, however, may be because the neighbors of people using Xtend are also switching to the product out of fear that the dicamba will otherwise drift into their fields and kill their own soybeans. Soybean farmer Randy Brazel told NPR that he’s in just such a situation. “I have a neighbor, a friend. He calls me and says, ‘I am going to have to go dicamba,'” Brazel was quoted as saying in the news report.

It goes on: “That phone call changed Brazel’s plans completely, because dicamba has a well-known problem. After being sprayed, it sometimes blows across property lines into neighbors’ farms … Brazel wasn’t willing to take the risk of that happening to his crops. He cancelled his entire order and bought the new dicamba-tolerant soybeans instead.”

Bayer and Monsanto have tried many different things to try and control the problem of dicamba drift. They’ve released figures indicating that incidents of dicamba drift have dropped dramatically in 2018 compared to previous years, which they attribute to hundreds of training sessions with farmers (it’s important to note that critics of Monsanto and Bayer have another explanation: the drop in dicamba-related incidents could perhaps be attributed to more farmers buying dicamba-resistant soybeans out of fear, rather than the farmers being better trained).

There have been other changes, too. According to NPR: “Lots of people have tried to stop this. Pesticide companies have reformulated the product. Government regulators have imposed restrictions on how and where farmers can spray it. All those rules are on the product’s label.”

Unfortunately, the regulations and reformulations haven’t stopped the problems with dicamba. Here’s what the lawsuit has to say about the chilling effect that the hard-to-contain pesticide has had on other crops: “Monsanto knew that commercializing dicamba-tolerant technology would effectively force farmers into buying seeds containing Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready 2 Xtend technology to protect their crops from the harmful effects of the use of dicamba on surrounding farms,” the authors write.

They continue: “In other words, soybean producers must buy dicamba-tolerant seeds or risk massive crop losses. In turn, this artificially-increased demand for dicamba-tolerant seeds resulted in Monsanto reaping higher monopoly profits than it otherwise would have reaped. Monsanto created a problem only it could solve, and then purported to solve it by unleashing a product that literally destroys its competition.”

Because of this dynamic, the parties filing the lawsuit claim that Monsanto has violated anti-trust law, snuffing out alternatives and causing financial damages to those who don’t buy their Xtend seeds. It’s now up to the court to make a decision as to whether the lawsuit will be heard. And, because the law usually proceeds in a leisurely and deliberate matter, and lawsuits against agribusiness titans often move even slower than most, we likely won’t know the results of the lawsuit for some time.

Unless the wind stops blowing, however, we do know one thing: dicamba spraying is going to continue to kill off plants that aren’t specifically designed to resist dicamba. That’ll be true until every farmer in the United States is buying Xtend seeds, and after too, as not every plant is a soybean. If you live next to a soybean field, hold your sycamores tight, give them a big kiss, and tell them that you love them: you might not get another chance.

By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)