CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. - The air in parts of the Midwest and South has become so contaminated with the weed killer dicamba that it has caused widespread damage to soybeans and other crops in recent summers, testified Dr. Ford Baldwin, a professor emeritus of weed science at the University of Arkansas in federal court on Thursday.
Amid the pollution, thousands of farmers have filed complaints about cupping leaves, stunted growth and lower yields. Among those is Bill Bader, the owner of the largest peach farmer in Missouri, who is suing German agribusiness giants Bayer and BASF, alleging they created the situation with the release of their joint dicamba cropping system.
The lawsuit alleges that the companies released their dicamba-related products beginning in 2015 knowing that it would result in damage to farms, creating more demand for their products.
The contamination is occurring because so many farmers are spraying so much of the weed killer at the same time that it builds up in the air to high enough levels that it is unable to dissipate, Baldwin said.
Small amounts of the weed killer volatize, or turn into gas, and in stable atmospheric conditions, what is effectively an invisible cloud of weed killer spreads across the landscape, he said.
The smog stays in the air until winds pick up, often poisoning the crops for an entire night, he said.
“There’s no way you can tell which field it came from. It didn’t just come from one field,” Baldwin said.
Bader, who Baldwin testified will likely go out of business because of damage to his trees, is suing for $20.9 million. His lawsuit is the first to go to trial, though hundreds of other farmers have filed similar cases. Thursday marked day nine of the trial.
Both companies dispute the allegations and instead blame other factors, such as soil fungus, for the sick peach trees.
Monsanto and BASF deny that their new formulations of dicamba are volatile. Both companies claim that when applied on-label, there is no chance of “adverse effects,” including yield loss, according to testimony presented in the trial.
But with so much damage occurring to crops across so many states, the academic community, including university weed scientists, have “moved on” from the question of whether dicamba is volatile, to trying to find ways to combat that volatility in their specific areas, Baldwin said.
Baldwin, who said his rate is $500 an hour, has previously served as an expert witness on behalf of Monsanto and BASF.
From his retirement in 2002 until late last year, he also performed contracted work with Bayer, then BASF, on the LibertyLink soybean seed group, which is the main competitor to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready and Xtend soybean seeds.
Monsanto attorney Jan Miller pointed out that Baldwin is not an expert on peach trees.
Baldwin said he is not, though he has previously testified as an expert for BASF on cases involving tomatoes and cotton ,even though those are not his areas of expertise.
“I’m not a peach expert. I’m a weed scientist, a herbicide expert. Herbicides cover a lot of different plants. I’ve been doing it for 45 years on lots of different crops,” Baldwin said. He said he has been diagnosing dicamba damage since the early to mid 1980s.
Baldwin, who has been advising farmers on growing practices since 1974, testified that in the mid 2000s, farmers’ main tool for dealing with weeds - the Roundup Ready system - started to fail. What farmers call “super weeds” were rapidly developing resistance to glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup.
“We were in drastic need of new technologies,” Baldwin said.
So when Monsanto announced its intention to sell soybean and cotton seeds that were genetically modified to withstand being sprayed by the herbicide dicamba, Baldwin was cautiously optimistic.
Dicamba is a herbicide that began being sold in the 1960s but was limited in its use because of its propensity to move off of where it was applied. Baldwin said “you had to assume” Monsanto had a plan to stabilize the herbicide, joking the company had been so successful with its Roundup-based system that weed scientists were practically out of a job for 10 years,
“My thoughts were hoping that the companies knew something the academics, that I, didn’t know,” Baldwin said.
Monsanto and BASF both announced their intention to sell new formulations of dicamba that were less volatile.
But when Monsanto announced it would be selling its dicamba-resistant cotton seeds in 2015 and its dicamba-resistant soybean seeds in 2016 without accompanying herbicides, Baldwin said he expected that farmers with significant weed issues would illegally spray older versions of the dicamba.
Bader alleges that happened, and it damaged his peach trees. Hundreds of other farmers have made similar claims about damage to non-resistant soybeans.
BASF saw sales of older versions of dicamba increase from $60 million annually in 2014 and 2015 to $100 million in 2016, according to documents presented in the trial.
“It sure wasn’t a surprise to me,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin, who first visited Bader’s farm in Feb. 2017, said he is highly confident - because of pictures of cupped leaves and the stress exhibited by the trees on his visit - that is what happened to Bader’s farm in 2016.
The problem didn’t go away with the release of Monsanto’s XtendiMax and BASF’s Engenia dicamba herbicides in 2017, however.
In fact, with strict label requirements and farmers feeling pressure to spray the weed killer soon enough to kill Palmer amaranth, one of the most pesky “super weeds,” before it grew past four inches high, farmers were extensively spraying dicamba, often at the same time, Baldwin said.
In 2017, thousands of farmers alleged at least 3.6 million acres of soybean damage, as well as damage to other crops.
Baldwin testified that there are many reasons for alleged dicamba damage including physical drift, which is when the herbicide is blown to areas unintentionally. With more acres being sprayed, more problems are likely to occur, he said.
But the phenomenon that Baldwin attributes to most of the damage is called atmospheric loading, which is when there is such a high air concentration of a substance that it is unable to dissipate into the air. It’s particularly likely to happen in stable atmospheric conditions.
The epicenter of that damage was southeastern Missouri, northeastern Arkansas and west Tennessee. Bader’s farm, which he testified dropped from 162,000 bushels a year in the early 2000s to as low as 12,000 bushels in 2018, is in southeastern Missouri.
In those areas, temperatures inversions often occur. Normally, air temperatures decrease with elevation. In a temperature inversion, a layer of warm air forms somewhere above the ground, keeping cool air below it.
Inversions often happen at night, when the ground cools the air right above it so quickly that a layer of warm air forms, anywhere from just above the ground to hundreds or thousands feet above the ground. The inversion remains until winds pick up, dissipating the layer of warm air.
With dicamba being what Baldwin calls a “volatile” substance, it is likely that small amounts vaporize into the air. Soybeans and other crops are highly sensitive to even small amounts of dicamba.
Baldwin said the signs of an inversion include that the dicamba damage often comes all at once, the plant leaves uniform in their cupping. It doesn’t matter if the field is next to one that has been sprayed or miles away from the nearest application.
You can’t spray fields like that - with so much uniformity, with such a similar dose - if you try, Baldwin said.
On Bader’s farm, constant exposure to dicamba through atmospheric loading events likely weakened the trees, leaving them susceptible to weather events and fungal disease, Baldwin said.
Miller, Monsanto’s attorney, pointed out that Baldwin conducted no leaf sample tests, no fungal tests or any other tests on Bader’s farm. Instead, he just relied on leaf symptomology and patterns in peach bud development.
He said Baldwin is not a peach expert and did not know what fruiting wood looked like until that day.
Baldwin also diagnosed damage to Bader’s soybeans without even getting out of his car, Miller said.
“I didn’t need to, with as many fields I looked at, walked in and drove by - correct,” Baldwin said.
At the end of the day, Miller brought out a pile of Missouri Department of Agriculture’s 2017 investigations into suspected dicamba drift. He then read three that were determined to be caused by a factor other than dicamba drift, and asked Baldwin after each one if it’s possible people made reports that turned out not to be what they thought.
Miller was alluding to his opening statement when he said that state investigators made determinations “case after case after case” that it was not dicamba.
“I know in Arkansas, it was not case after case after case,” said Baldwin, who lives about 30 minutes north of Little Rock.
The Missouri Department of Agriculture received 310 complaints in 2017, according to testimony.
This coverage is supported with a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.