Monsanto Bolsters Its Defense of Weed Killer -- Update

By Jacob Bunge Features Dow Jones Newswires

A fight over one of the most powerful new weapons against hard-to-kill weeds, developed by agricultural giant Monsanto Co., is spilling into the courts.

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Monsanto's new version of the herbicide called dicamba is part of a more than $1 billion investment that pairs it with new genetically engineered seeds that are resistant to the spray. But some farmers say their nonresistant crops suffered after neighbors' dicamba drifted onto their land.

The agricultural giant in October sued the Arkansas State Plant Board following the board's decision to bar Monsanto's new herbicide and propose tougher restrictions on similar weed killers ahead of the 2018 growing season. Monsanto claims its herbicide is being held to an unfair standard.

Arkansas has been a flashpoint in the dispute: About 900,000 acres of crops were reported damaged there, more than in any other state.

About 300 farmers, crop scientists and other attendees gathered in Little Rock on Wednesday for a hearing on Arkansas's proposed stiffer dicamba controls, which Monsanto and some farmers are fighting. The proposed restrictions are subject to the approval of a subcommittee of state legislators.

Scott Partridge, Monsanto's head of strategy, spoke at the hearing, as did proponents of tighter restrictions. Monsanto has criticized some Arkansas state agricultural officials and academics involved in researching and regulating dicamba, accusing them of bias and overstepping their authority. "What the plant board did is very unfortunate for growers in Arkansas," Mr. Partridge said.

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An Arkansas State Plant Board spokeswoman declined to comment.

Farmers in 25 states submitted more than 2,700 claims to state agricultural agencies that neighbors' dicamba spraying shriveled 3.6 million acres of soybeans and damaged other crops, such as cantaloupe and pumpkins, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The complaints have farmers and agricultural researchers racing to figure out how to avoid more collateral damage ahead of next summer, when Monsanto projects the herbicide will be used on twice the U.S. farm acreage as this year.

Other states besides Arkansas, including Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Tennessee and Indiana, are discussing additional limits and training requirements for farmers spraying dicamba, state officials say.

Monsanto had pitched dicamba, along with soybean and cotton seeds engineered to survive it, to farmers struggling to kill weeds such as palmer amaranth that can grow so fast and so big -- developing stalks as thick as baseball bats -- that they choke out crops.

Jonas Oxgaard, an analyst with Bernstein, estimated that the chemical and related seed sales could generate as much as $350 million in annual profits for Monsanto. "It's their big moneymaker," he said.

German chemical maker BASF SA is also marketing a new version of dicamba to pair with the Monsanto-developed crops.

While dicamba has proven able to knock down tough weeds, past versions of the herbicide have been known for evaporating from plants after application, which can create a mist prone to floating into nearby fields. Monsanto and BASF's new formulations are designed to minimize that effect, the companies have said.

U.S. farmers planted about 25 million acres of dicamba-tolerant crops this year. Following the damage complaints, the companies in October agreed with the EPA on tighter controls for those products, including training farmers on how to manage the chemical and barring application on windy days.

Arkansas's Plant Board has proposed going further, possibly by prohibiting dicamba use from mid-April through the end of October to safeguard growing plants. The state has also refused to approve Monsanto's dicamba product for use in Arkansas, saying it needs further analysis by University of Arkansas researchers. Monsanto argues that other herbicides haven't been subjected to the sort of further analysis the state wants to apply to Monsanto's dicamba product.

Even with the reports of widespread damage, farmers and crop researchers say many affected fields recovered, thanks to good weather over the latter half of the growing season. The USDA is projecting a record U.S. soybean crop. The outcome could have been worse with drier weather, researchers said.

Farmers are exploring their own legal options. Some have joined class-action lawsuits against Monsanto and BASF, seeking compensation for damaged crops. The companies are contesting those lawsuits.

For farmers, "it's highly emotional," said Doug Goehring, North Dakota's agriculture commissioner.

Tom Burnham, who farms 11,000 acres near Blytheville, Ark., said he hired a lawyer to advise him on how to handle a neighbor whose errant dicamba spraying, Mr. Burnham said, reduced some fields' harvest by 5% to 20%. Mr. Burnham said he didn't expect to make money on any lawsuit he may file. "I'm doing it just to make a point."

Write to Jacob Bunge at jacob.bunge@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 08, 2017 17:48 ET (22:48 GMT)