After agreeing to pay $400 million in dicamba settlements to resolve claims alleging the controversial weed killer caused widespread crop damage, the manufacturer is asking the EPA to approve a new formulation intended to address the risks posed to neighboring farms.
Dicamba is a synthetic herbicide formerly sold under various brand names, including Xtend, Xtendiimax, Engenia and Fexapen, which have been used for years by farmers nationwide to control weeds. However, approval was withdrawn earlier this year.
While dicamba was originally only applied during certain times of the year, use of the herbicide increased dramatically after new genetically modified seeds were introduced in 2016, which were intended to make crops tolerant of the weed killer. This was designed to allow farmers to use dicamba “over-the-top”, as the crops were emerging from the ground. However, this has resulted in unintended crop damage as the dicamba drifted onto neighboring farms, which did not use the genetically modified seeds.
In June, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prior approval of dicamba formulations, after determining the agency did not pay enough attention to the risk of dicamba crop damage on neighboring farms.
As a result of the ruling, the EPA issued a final cancellation order, which allowed limited distribution of existing stocks of the three weed killers by commercial applicators until July 31. That deadline has now passed, but in an October 1 webinar with the Minnesota Farm Bureau, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told viewers his agency will announce whether dicamba-based products will be allowed during the next planting season.
Observers say the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to make a decision on the weed killer’s fate by the end of the month, as Bayer has pushed to a new formulation of dicamba that will not drift away from fields where it is sprayed.
Bayer, which has already agreed to pay $400 million to settle dicamba crop damage lawsuits, says it has added an adjuvant to its Xtend line of herbicides which prevents dicamba from evaporating and drifting to other fields. BASF, the maker of Engenia, another dicamba-based weed killer, has also indicated it has a new no-drift formulation as well that it hopes the EPA will approve.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 94% of the U.S. soybean crop is genetically modified for herbicide tolerance, and next year an estimated 8.2 million acres of soybeans are expected to be harvested. Soybeans are the primary growing crop targeted by dicamba-based products.
Dozens of dicamba drift lawsuits have been filed since August 2017, alleging that Monsanto rushed a system to market that encouraged the increased use of dicamba, while withholding or concealing information from regulatory authorities about the volatility of dicamba-resistant crops.
Farmers and environmental groups say the herbicide drifts onto neighboring crops that are not dicamba tolerant, killing them and forcing farmers to buy the genetically engineered seeds so their crops aren’t killed by dicamba.
In February, a Missouri jury awarded $265 million to a peach farmer in the first dicamba crop damage lawsuit to go to trial. The verdict included $15 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages, designed to punish Monsanto and BASF for their reckless behavior in marketing the widespread use of the weed killer.
The dicamba lawsuits claimed the high volatility is seen as a feature by the manufacturers, meant to force other farmers to use their expensive products to grow dicamba-tolerant GMO crops if they don’t want to suffer losses when their neighbors spray.