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Monsanto draws state heat over drift

by Stephen Steed | July 26, 2016 at 2:02 a.m.

The Monsanto Co. caught the attention -- and much of the aggravation -- of the pesticide committee of the state Plant Board on Monday as it tried to address damage wrought by the illegal spraying of dicamba on some cotton and soybean fields in the state.

Monsanto this spring released its new soybean, called Roundup Ready 2 Xtend, which is tolerant of dicamba, a readily available herbicide used in varying formulations. Some Arkansas farmers were drawn to buying and planting the Xtend beans after China decided to accept them in February. The European Union decided just last Friday to also accept Xtend beans.

However, dicamba is susceptible to drifting with the wind to adjacent crops that are not dicamba-tolerant. Because of that, it is illegal to spray dicamba across crops or over the top of them. With the China market opening, but after an infestation of pigweed, which is growing in its resistance to most other herbicides, some Arkansas farmers turned to dicamba, illegally.

Members of the pesticide committee asked how Monsanto, which had at least two representatives at the meeting, could release a new soybean seed without an accompanying, and legal, herbicide. They also asked what action Monsanto would take against farmers who illegally sprayed dicamba.

Monsanto expects its new dicamba-based herbicide, which is less susceptible to drift, to be approved by the EPA early this fall, said Boyd Cary, one of the Monsanto representatives. In response to critics on the panel, Cary said, "It's always preferable to have people want to do the right thing."

Cary said Monsanto would look at ways to punish farmers who violate the law while using Monsanto products but that revoking licenses was "difficult if not impossible." He said Monsanto worked hard to let farmers know to not use dicamba on Xtend crops.

Danny Finch, a pesticide committee member from Jonesboro, noted that a representative of the Dow Chemical Co., in a separate but related discussion earlier in the meeting, was clear in saying that Dow would revoke a farmer's use of its technology if caught doing wrong. "We just heard that Monsanto wouldn't do anything," Finch said.

Rachel Hurley, Monsanto lawyer, insisted that the company is looking at potential penalties for "bad actors."

"Our job is to protect the farmer," Finch said. "I can't sit here right now and say this [Xtend] program is going to work. You're not giving us an option."

"We're not forcing anyone to buy them [Xtend seeds]," Hurley said.

Kyel Richard, a Monsanto spokesman, later said by telephone that farmers planting Xtend soybeans this season had ample Monsanto products to chose from as their herbicides for this year's crops. Arkansas officials say dicamba is considerably less expensive and that alternative products include glyphosate, better known as Monsanto's Roundup, to which pigweed is now resistant.

As for punishing farmers who did wrong, Richard said, "It's up to the state or the Plant Board to enforce the law."

The board, a division of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, doesn't have figures on how many acres of crops have been damaged, but some Arkansas agriculture experts said some fields could see yields reduced by up to 15 percent. Most of the damage is in Northeast Arkansas. There also are reports of damage to watermelon and peanut crops in the state.

With dicamba damage in some 200,000 acres in Missouri, the problem could be worse there. Officials there have received 109 formal complaints, mostly in the bootheel. Damage also has been reported in western Tennessee and in Mississippi.

Susie Nichols, manager of the Arkansas Plant Board's pesticide division, said the board has 25 formal complaints. "I've gotten many, many more phone calls than that," Nichols said. "They're informal complaints, and the farmers are trying to work it out together. They're neighbors and friends, and maybe they grew up together."

Nichols and Terry Walker, Plant Board director, will meet today with Monsanto representatives. Rick Cartwright, a committee member who represents the University of Arkansas System Agriculture Division, questioned that meeting's legality under the state's open-records law and its wisdom. "You know how this looks," Cartwright said. Walker gave assurances that no decisions will be made.

Business on 07/26/2016

Print Headline: Monsanto draws state heat over drift


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