ST. LOUIS — A group of nearly 60 Texas vineyards filed suit Friday against agribusiness companies Bayer and BASF, alleging that their controversial weedkiller dicamba, used heavily in the state’s vast cotton fields, has damaged thousands of acres of wine grapes.
The case from 57 growers near Lubbock is believed to be the first dicamba suit from the U.S. wine industry. It says that 95% of productive grape vines have sustained damage across dozens of vineyards there, with the worst occurring in the last three years, as more and more local cotton growers used the herbicide.
Combined with other newly filed cases — including a separate suit from a beekeeper who was formerly Arkansas’ biggest honey producer — the legal action reflects the expanding and diversifying web of litigation ensnaring the chemical and the companies behind it. And while Bayer agreed last summer to pay $400 million to settle dicamba suits, the agreement only applies to soybean damage reported by last year.
“I think we’re going to end up seeing more like this,” said Paul Lesko, a St. Louis-based lawyer involved with separate dicamba cases.
Bayer said on Friday that it had yet to be served with the Texas lawsuit, but that the company “stands strongly behind the safety and utility” of its dicamba technology pioneered by Creve Coeur-based Monsanto, which it acquired in 2018.
“We have great sympathy for any grower who suffers a crop loss, but there are many possible reasons why crop losses might occur, including extreme winter weather conditions that can have particularly devastating effects on perennial crops like vineyards,” the German life sciences company said in a statement.
BASF suggested that a 2019 freeze and “other known sources of herbicides” are among the factors that have contributed to problems at the heart of the new case.
“BASF has had the opportunity to review these claims and the alleged damage and strongly disagrees with the allegations in the lawsuit,” the German chemical company said in a statement of its own.
The lawsuit in Texas seeks hundreds of millions in dollars in damages from the companies for marketing “a defective seed system featuring a highly volatile weedkiller that drifted and crippled scores of vineyards,” according to a statement announcing the filing.
Texas’ High Plains are home to intense cotton production, and the first dicamba-tolerant seeds brought to the market were cotton varieties from Monsanto, introduced in 2015.
That same year, dicamba complaints began to emerge in other cotton-producing areas, such as southeast Missouri’s Bootheel region. Farmers complained that dicamba vaporized and drifted to other fields, harming plants and crops that weren’t engineered to resist it. Reports of damage intensified in future years, after Monsanto’s 2016 release of soybean seeds engineered with the new, dicamba-resistant trait.
Millions of acres of crop damage have now been reported across U.S. farms — including claims that led to a $265 million jury ruling last year against Bayer and BASF in favor of Missouri peach farmer Bill Bader — all fueling heated controversy and tearing an often bitter rift in the agricultural community.
Places like the Bootheel and neighboring regions of northeast Arkansas, where both cotton and soybeans are widely grown, saw the country’s greatest concentrations of dicamba complaints. But now they’ve largely died down there. Many farmers adopted dicamba-resistant seeds — some for their strong yields, others to avoid the risk of future damage.
But other crop and plant varieties have no such recourse, and are left vulnerable to potential injury.
Richard Coy, co-owner of Coy’s Honey Farm, filed suit against Bayer and BASF in Arkansas last week.
Coy had been Arkansas’ largest honey producer. But he moved his business out of the state two years ago after blaming dicamba damage for hurting production and causing steep financial losses.
Other beekeepers throughout the area have reported damage, too, and Coy says their plight is “as bad as ever” — a trend he expects to continue, unless change is made. While he isn’t yet aware of other honey-related dicamba lawsuits, he said fellow producers are keeping an eye on his case.
“I guess they want me to be the guinea pig,” Coy said.
Outside lawyers, like Lesko, echoed Coy’s outlook about continued dicamba complaints and cases. That could mean more headaches for the chemical’s manufacturers.
“I think they’re going to face these lawsuits as long as the product is on the market,” said Lesko. “It’s not like a switch is going to flick and damage is going to stop. It’s just going to continue year after year after year.”