The companies knew before they released dicamba about the massive damage it would cause — and then put it on the market
Below is a commentary on an excellent article published by the MidWest Center for Investigative Reporting, titled, "‘Buy it or else’: Inside Monsanto and BASF’s moves to force dicamba on farmers".
Dicamba is a herbicide that is sprayed on GM dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton but has the unfortunate habit of drifting off-target, killing other crops and wild plants.
Investigation on weed killer dicamba adds to pattern of corporate deception on pesticide hazards
Beyond Pesticides, December 18, 2020
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The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting published a story in early December on yet another example of the corporate malfeasance that exalts profit far above concerns for safety, health, and ecosystems. The Midwest Center’s investigation finds that Monsanto and BASF, makers of the extremely problematic herbicide dicamba, engaged in a variety of deceitful, unethical, and possibly fraudulent practices to enable its use. The bottom line is that the companies knew, before they released dicamba, about the massive damage it would cause — and then put it on the market. Beyond Pesticides has reported on the corporate greed that fuels the downstream public health, environmental, and economic devastation these pesticides cause, and advocated for their removal from the market.
Such unscrupulous behavior is not confined to these companies; Bayer (which now owns Monsanto) and Syngenta are also implicated in similar actions related to other pesticides: glyphosate and atrazine, respectively. Over the course of the past couple of decades, large agrochemical corporations have pursued not only extreme market penetration for their toxic products, but also, vertical integration that, in the case of Bayer/Monsanto, “represents a near-monopoly on the agriculture supply chain.” Corporate ownership of the patent on genetically engineered (GE) seeds — which work only when paired with pesticides the company manufactures — not only suppresses competition, but also, with enough market share, essentially imposes near-complete reliance by farmers on one company’s products. Many experts and advocates regard this as a serious threat to global food supply, health, biodiversity, and the environment.
When EPA fails to enact its mission to protect health and the environment by allowing use of pesticides that result in harms, the agrochemical landscape gets even uglier; a bit of review of the dicamba saga will be helpful. Dicamba is a particularly problematic herbicide, given its propensity to drift, the widespread damage it causes to non-target flora, and industry’s intensive marketing of various product iterations. Added to that list are its impacts on human health: carcinogenicity, neurotoxicity, hepatic and renal damage, and developmental effects, among others. Further, it is toxic to birds, fish, and other aquatic organisms, which is especially relevant where it shows up in groundwater, as it tends to in the Pacific Northwest.
The herbicide was used for decades on its own to control weeds on cropland. The “modern” dicamba debacle began in 2016 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved Monsanto’s dicamba “strategy” for cotton and soybeans: the dicamba formulation Xtendimax for use with seeds genetically engineered to be dicamba tolerant. Once deployed, because of the herbicide’s strong tendency to drift for significant distances, its use resulted in “millions of acres of crop damage across the Midwest and South; widespread tree death in many rural communities, state parks and nature preserves; and an unprecedented level of strife in the farming world.” As reports of this extreme damage began to roll in, states began to scramble to regulate dicamba’s use, absent federal efforts, to try to curb some of the devastation.
“Holdout” farmers, including organic growers, who have rejected the use of the GE-seed-plus-herbicide scheme, have been particularly vulnerable to the ravages of dicamba drift. Their complaints to neighboring farmers, whose dicamba use has compromised yield, destroyed crops, or rendered them no longer organic, are often met with indifference or anger. (As mentioned above, dicamba use is a factor in increasing tensions in some rural communities.) These farmers are faced, as the Midwest Center writes, with the choice to “get poisoned or get on board” the (GE-seed-plus-herbicide) train.
Notably, as Beyond Pesticides reported in early 2020, a Missouri peach farmer that sued Bayer and BASF for damage to his trees won $265 million in compensation for the companies’ “negligence in the design of their dicamba herbicides, and failure to warn farmers about the dangers of their products.... The jury determined that the joint venture between the two companies amounted to a conspiracy to create an ‘ecological disaster’ in the name of profit.” An attorney for the plaintiff in that case, Billy Randles, commented, “This is the first product in American history that literally destroys the competition.... You buy it or else.”
These realities demonstrate the perverse elegance of strategic corporate “verticality-plus-penetration.” Pesticide manufacturers control supply chains, functionally force farmers into intense reliance on their products, and then use other farmers as leverage on those who resist to get them to “get with the program.” Monsanto has been notorious for bankrupting small farmers who have dared to say “no” to its near-hegemony by, for example, saving seeds to plant in the following season, thus opting out of purchasing the company’s GE seeds.
This Midwest Center reporting shows that executives at Monsanto, knowing full-well the potential damage of their dicamba/GE seed system, proceeded. The story reveals that Monsanto:
* released and marketed its dicamba products “knowing that dicamba would cause widespread damage to soybean and cotton crops that weren’t resistant to dicamba. They used ‘protection from your neighbors’ [messaging] as a way to sell more of their products. In doing so, the companies ignored years of warnings from independent academics, specialty crop growers and their own employees.”
* limited any testing that could have delayed or denied EPA approval of dicamba; “For years, Monsanto struggled to keep dicamba from drifting in its own tests. In regulatory tests submitted to the EPA, the company sprayed the product in locations and under weather conditions that did not mirror how farmers would actually spray it. Midway through the approval process, with the EPA paying close attention, the company decided to stop its researchers from conducting tests.”
* knew of outstanding questions and concerns about dicamba’s use when it submitted data for approval to regulators; “The company’s own research showed dicamba mixed with other herbicides was more likely to cause damage. The company also prevented independent scientists from conducting their own tests and declined to pay for studies that would potentially give them more information about dicamba’s real-world impact.”
* investigated drift incidents in ways designed to “limit their liability, find other reasons for the damage, and never end with payouts to farmers.”
* collaborated for years with BASF on the dicamba-tolerant seed system
* “released seeds resistant to dicamba in 2015 and 2016 without an accompanying weed killer, knowing that off-label spraying of dicamba, which is illegal, would be ‘rampant.’ At the same time, BASF ramped up production of older versions of dicamba that were illegal to apply to the crops and made tens of millions of dollars selling the older versions, which were more likely to cause move off of where they were applied.”
Adding to the tale, in 1989 Monsanto introduced its “Roundup Ready” scheme — GE (glyphosate-tolerant) seeds to be used with the company’s existing glyphosate-based herbicide, Roundup. Glyphosate herbicides have been in heavy use in the U.S. for GE soybeans, corn, canola, alfalfa, cotton, and sorghum for more than two decades. In the mid 2000s, this profitable ploy began to hit speed bumps, as widespread resistance to glyphosate began to develop. The Bayer/Monsanto response to this resistance and the subsequent development of so-called “super weeds” was to double down, developing soybean and cotton seeds that were tolerant of both dicamba and glyphosate, and encouraging tank mixing and use of both herbicides. This tactic also became problematic: (1) this mixing increases concentrations of dicamba in the air up to nine times compared to dicamba alone, and (2) dicamba, when mixed with glyphosate, and/or when used in hot weather, is even more drift prone than the compound by itself.
Monsanto, with its role re: dicamba and glyphosate, has been “all in” on the chemical treadmill, and is a notorious corporate “bad actor.” It has spent years and a fortune on efforts to convince the public that its glyphosate products are “safe,” primarily by hiding information about the herbicide’s impacts. On the heels of the 2015 finding by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen, the company was hit with many lawsuits for glyphosate’s role in, particularly, development of non-Hodgin Lymphoma (NHL). In 2017, a judge’s unsealing of two rounds of documents — dubbed the “Monsanto Papers” — made headlines because of what they showed. Emails, both internal and between the company and federal regulators, revealed “questionable research practices by the company, inappropriate ties to a top EPA official, and possible ‘ghostwriting’ of purportedly ‘independent’ research studies” that it publicly attributed to academics.
Monsanto has also attacked and discredited researchers, journalists, and others who dare to challenge the safety of its products and/or the company’s “integrity.” In 2019, more document releases (via Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests) revealed Monsanto’s “‘intelligence fusion center” that monitored potential threats to the industry and spread retaliatory responses through third-party sources. Its actions included a campaign against Carey Gillam, who wrote Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, in which she explains the company’s efforts “to cover up — through fraud, intimidation, [and] ghostwriting agency documents — the science showing that glyphosate kills humans as well as weeds.”
Beyond Pesticides noted, in its review of Ms. Gillam’s book, that Monsanto also spearheaded attacks on IARC Chair Aaron Blair, and pressured EPA to prevent the participation of epidemiologist Peter Infante, PhD on a science advisory panel on the potential carcinogenicity of glyphosate. For more, see the article “Monsanto: Decades of Deceit” by Ms. Gillam in the Summer 2018 issue of Beyond Pesticides’ journal, Pesticides and You.
The Monsanto Papers extended the evidence for what a previous report, The Poison Papers, had demonstrated: behind-the-scenes collusion between agrochemical companies (and other industry sectors) and federal regulators, a problem that escalated wildly during the Trump administration. The Poison Papers (TPP) was a trove of documents — obtained largely by author and activist Carol Van Strum, and published by The Bioscience Resource Project and the Center for Media and Democracy — that made public a decades-long pattern of collusion between industry and regulators. TPP showed, in excruciating detail across more than 20,000 documents, that both entities were aware of the toxicity of many chemical products, and yet worked together to keep this information from the public and the press.
The introduction to TPP asserts: “Corporate concealment is not a new story. What is novel in [T]he Poison Papers is abundant evidence that EPA and other regulators were, often, knowing participants or even primary instigators of these cover-ups. These regulators failed to inform the public of the hazards of dioxins and other chemicals; of evidence of fraudulent independent testing; even of one instance of widespread human exposure. The papers thus reveal, in the often-incriminating words of the participants themselves, an elaborate universe of deception and deceit surrounding many pesticides and synthetic chemicals.”
Syngenta Crop Protection (Syngenta) is another among this crew of ethically challenged corporations; the company has gone to all kinds of lengths to protect its investment in and profits from its atrazine products. The herbicide is used primarily on corn, wheat, and sugar cane, on turf (especially golf courses and lawns), and on Christmas tree farms. It is very prone to runoff from fields (which can contaminate water supplies in the Midwest and South, primarily), and can drift through the air for hundreds of miles from target sites when applied as a spray. The compound is implicated in a variety of health problems, including cancer, endocrine disruption, neurotoxicity, and reproductive anomalies, and is especially dangerous for embryos and young children.
The Center for Media and Democracy’s (CMD’s) PR Watch reported in 2012 on documents it had obtained showing that Syngenta’s “PR team investigated the press and spent millions to spin news coverage and public perceptions in the face of growing concerns about potential health risks from the widely used weed-killer atrazine.” The company used a variety of tactics to buoy the perception and reputation of its atrazine products: it sought third parties to speak in support of the herbicide, floated glowing corporate op-ed pieces to appear under willing individuals’ bylines, and directed its chief scientist to ghostwrite a book chapter that would challenge the idea of regulating atrazine by applying the Precautionary Principle. After a New York Times investigation and report on atrazine, that public relations team at Syngenta held a meeting in which one agenda item was “‘to obtain the services of a well know (sic) investigative reporter to probe around the EPA’ and, at a minimum get advice ‘on what buttons to push and cages to rattle.’”
In 2013, an investigative report by 100Reporters, a nonprofit investigative journalism group, showed that the agrochemical company “routinely paid ‘third-party allies’ to appear to be independent supporters, keeping a list of 130 people and groups it could recruit as experts without disclosing ties to the company. The investigating reporters discovered documents that “reveal a corporate strategy to discredit critics and to strip plaintiffs from [a] class-action case.” (That case sought to have Syngenta pay for the removal of atrazine from drinking water in more than 1,000 water systems across six states.) See this Beyond Pesticides Daily News Blog item for more.
The company took especial aim at Tyrone Hayes, PhD of the University of California, Berkeley, a leading researchers on atrazine and one of its most outspoken critics. (His research has shown that minute exposures to atrazine can cause cancer and feminize male frogs.) Syngenta commissioned a psychological profile of the scientist in hopes of boosting its campaign to delegitimize him and his work. Beyond Pesticides stepped up to support Dr. Hayes’s work by establishing its Fund for Independent Science.
What does one make of this litany of reports on corporate (and regulatory) misbehavior? The Poison Papers, the Monsanto Papers, the Midwest Center’s new reporting, the 100Reporters report, (CMD’s) PR Watch investigation — taken together, the pattern and motive are inescapable. Agrochemical companies (and their allies, which sometimes have included regulators in federal agencies, including EPA) have been engaged, and continue to be, in devious and dangerous efforts to hide the truth about the harms of pesticide (and other chemical) products from the public and the press. These few reports from many different reporters yield ample evidence of this pattern, and concerningly, likely cover only some of the corporate strategies and behaviors afoot.
The on-the-ground reality is that these actions result in widespread pesticide contamination of human bodies, those of other organisms, and vulnerable ecosystems. Such companies place greater value on their ability to sell poisons than on the harms those products do. This not only is disgraceful, but also, such actions should be the target of federal and state efforts to expose them, hold them accountable, and create and enforce genuinely protective regulations.
The onus for holding corporations accountable for their malfeasance should not rest on members of the public, and on health and environment education and advocacy groups (such as Beyond Pesticides — which, for example, recently joined a lawsuit against EPA over its decision to reapprove atrazine). Integrity at EPA — in short supply during the Trump administration — must also be restored, with real, rather than “purchased” or biased science at the center, and with zealous protection of health and environment at the forefront. Beyond Pesticides will continue to expose bad actors and advocate for these reforms at every level.