Weed scientist: With widespread pollution, ‘no way’ to know where drift that harmed peaches came from

Weed scientist: With widespread pollution, ‘no way’ to know where drift that harmed peaches came from

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CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. — The air in parts of the Midwest and South has become so contaminated with the weedkiller dicamba that it has caused widespread damage to soybeans and other crops in recent summers, a prominent weed scientist testified in federal court this week.

Dr. Ford Baldwin, a professor emeritus of weed science at the University of Arkansas, said so many farmers are spraying so much of the weedkiller at the same time that it builds up in the air and is unable to dissipate — an invisible cloud of weedkiller across the landscape.

The dicamba smog stays in the air until winds pick up, Baldwin testified on Thursday, often poisoning the crops for an entire night.

“There’s no way you can tell which field it came from. It didn’t just come from one field,” Baldwin said.

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.

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.

Friday marked day 10 of the trial.

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. They blame other factors, such as soil fungus, for the sick peach trees.

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 he charges $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 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 February 2017, said he is confident — because of pictures of cupped leaves and the stress exhibited by the trees on his visit — about 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 weedkiller 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 damageincluding 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. 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, temperature 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 of 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 among signs of an inversion are that the dicamba damage often come all at once, and the plant leaves are uniform in their cupping.

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.

Baldwin’s testimony wrapped up Friday morning. He was followed by Dr. Joe Guenthner, an agricultural economist and professor emeritus at the University of Idaho, who estimated the damages to Bader Farms from dicamba to be $20.9 million.

Monsanto will begin its defense on Monday.

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