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Nathan Donley and Darvin Bentlage: Looking to the farming future after dicamba ruling

Nathan Donley and Darvin Bentlage: Looking to the farming future after dicamba ruling

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Dicamba Damage

Soybeans with suspected dicamba damage north of Flatville, Ill., on Aug. 21, 2019.

We were raised a couple hours drive from each other — Donley in the Kansas City suburbs, Bentlage down in Missouri’s sparsely populated Barton County — but we’ve never met.

Donley is a biologist who works for a conservation group focusing on protecting wildlife and people from pollutants like dangerous pesticides.

Bentlage is a fourth-generation family farmer and rancher in southwest Missouri where he raises cattle, soybeans, corn and wheat on a 1,200-acre spread.

But last month, we were part of a coalition of farmers and conservation groups that came together to win an important victory for the nation’s family farmers and the environment: We beat dicamba-maker Monsanto — now owned by Bayer — and the Environmental Protection Agency in court.

On June 3, a federal court ruled in our favor, finding that the Trump administration wrongly approved Monsanto’s notoriously drift-prone pesticide dicamba for use on genetically engineered soy and cotton crops — a decision that makes the sale and future use of the pesticide illegal.

The court noted the EPA ignored years of factual evidence demonstrating dicamba’s habit of drifting and damaging millions of acres of crops and natural areas.

In addition, the court pointed out that the agency tasked with making sure pesticides are safe chose to ignore research by independent scientists documenting that even the most recent formulations of the pesticide failed to prevent it from drifting, sometimes for miles.

Instead, the EPA chose to rely almost exclusively on the confidential research of Monsanto/Bayer, the pesticide’s maker.

As a result, the court ruled that the EPA had illegally approved the herbicide’s use.

Given the EPA’s blatant disregard for the facts, it came as no surprise that the agency’s response to the ruling was to once again ignore broad evidence of the pesticide’s ongoing damage and announce that farmers who had already purchased dicamba would be allowed to spray it through the end of July.

A month later, we’re already seeing the very predictable results of that reckless decision in fields from Missouri to Iowa worked by farmers who have refused to bow to the pressure to buy Monsanto/Bayer’s seeds genetically altered to resist dicamba. In some areas researchers are reporting widespread damage to virtually all dicamba-sensitive soybean fields.

The damage, of course, is nothing new for farmers growing anything other than Monsanto/Bayer’s crops.

In Bentlage’s case, the damage started back in 2017 when a neighbor sprayed dicamba on a nearby field. His once healthy soybeans in a 58-acre field suddenly lost their blooms and quit growing, cutting his yield, and profits, from that field by more than half.

In 2018, 120 of his acres were harmed by the pesticide.

Basically, the EPA had approved a product designed to improve the profits of some farmers — those who grew certain genetically engineered crops — at the expense of other farmers. It never made any scientific, legal or moral sense. It was a lawsuit waiting to happen.

As disappointing as it was that the court felt it had to allow temporary ongoing dicamba use, our legal victory should make it much more difficult for the EPA to continue to completely ignore the facts when assessing the safety of this dangerous pesticide moving forward.

And the results of our legal win against Monsanto and the EPA will potentially reach beyond dicamba use.

The ruling spotlights why the EPA is legally required to base its pesticide approvals not solely on the interests of pesticide-makers and Big Agriculture, but on the science, the law, and what’s actually happening out in the nation’s fields and wild places.

With the help of the courts, we can finally start to change that and mend the EPA’s broken pesticide-approval process that for too long has protected the corporate profits of industrial agriculture interests, and little else.

Nathan Donley is a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. Darvin Bentlage is a fourth-generation farmer and rancher in Barton County.

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