JEFFERSON CITY — State agriculture officials are asking the Legislature to approve more staff to help them resolve hundreds of pending investigations into possible pesticide misuse.
The Missouri Department of Agriculture is struggling to complete investigations into about 600 complaints that the weedkiller dicamba damaged crops. Some were filed as long as three years ago.
The department’s budget request for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, includes funding for four new pesticide use investigators and two case review specialists. Gov. Mike Parson’s office backs the recommendation.
Funding for the positions already exists. Last session, lawmakers passed legislation allowing the department to raise the fees it collects.
“We’re just asking for the permission to use that money to put the boots on the ground so that we can get more current with these investigations,” said agriculture department Director Chris Chinn at a hearing last week before the House Budget Committee.
From July 2016 to June 2019, the department got more than 1,000 complaints of pesticide drift from farmers and homeowners. The annual average rose from 87 to 338.
Complaints of pesticide drifting off-target and damaging crops in Missouri spiked in the summer of 2016, largely in the bootheel. Experts identified the volatile herbicide dicamba as the main culprit, and reports of drift have continued through this past summer.
Data provided in the Department of Agriculture’s budget request shows that its investigators have struggled to keep up in recent years.
From July 2016 to June 2017, the department investigated all 289 complaints it received and closed most of them — 249 in total.
But during the next fiscal year, from July 2017 to July 2018, the department received 485, investigated 460 and closed 40. While the number of complaints declined to 242 the next year, the department investigated 142 and closed only 7.
The unresolved cases have piled up: in June, nearly 600 were backlogged, according to the department. This means the department has finished the fieldwork and lab analysis in a case but hasn’t made a decision about whether the pesticide was misused.
Lawmakers’ questions at last week’s hearing focused partly on whether the new staff would be enough.
“I do not see your people — even with these six — being able to handle enough of the June-July rush,” said Rep. Greg Sharpe, R-Ewing.
Sharpe said he thought a college student or temporary employee might be able to collect the initial data.
The department receives its data from online forms, paper forms or people who call in complaints, said Paul Bailey, director of the department’s Division of Plant Industries.
Bailey also said it takes about three months to train the staff who go out and investigate damage complaints.
“We have a misconception here in the public and the agriculture sector,” he said. “Most people compare us to insurance crop adjusters. We are not.”
The Department of Agriculture’s investigators decide whether a pesticide was used in a way that doesn’t align with its label directions, spokeswoman Sami Jo Freeman said in an email. They don’t determine yield losses and don’t order payments of any kind regarding damages or losses, she said.
The backlog of complaints stems from the controversial rollout of new crops that were genetically engineered to tolerate dicamba.
Creve Coeur-based Monsanto Co., now owned by Bayer, released dicamba-tolerant cotton in 2015 and soybeans in 2016. At the time, the EPA hadn’t approved a herbicide that could legally be used on the crops. Some farmers who planted the new seeds are suspected to have sprayed illegal, off-label forms of the pesticide, which is notoriously prone to drift.
The EPA soon approved a new form of the herbicide that was supposed to be less volatile. But the off-target drift didn’t stop: Scientists suspect dicamba damaged millions of acres of farmland nationwide in 2017.
In Illinois, complaints about the weedkiller hit record-high levels last year.
The number of dicamba-resistant soybeans planted in the U.S. has also steadily increased, going from about 20 million acres in 2017 to 60 million acres in 2019, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. That represents about 60% of all soybeans in the U.S.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit against Bayer and BASF over their release of dicamba-related products is proceeding in federal court in Cape Girardeau.