Monsanto seeds weed

‘Monsanto of pot’: How cannabis firms are seeking to lower growing costs

As cannabis producers add to their harvest as Canada prepares to legalize recreational use starting Oct. 17, some companies are already exploring novel ways to dramatically reduce the cost of growing pot.

While most cannabis companies build massive indoor facilities and greenhouses to meet the expected demand that Canadians will have for legal pot, the cost needed to operate these modern grow-operations is also climbing with the average cost of producing marijuana hovering at about $1 a gram.

Now, producers are turning to old-school methods such as outdoor production as well as new technological innovations in an effort to reduce the cost of growing a gram to pennies on the dollar.

CannTrust Holdings Inc. began a pilot program this month to sell marijuana seeds to farmers with a plan to buy their harvest and reduce the cost of a gram of pot to as little as 20 cents through lower overhead and production charges, said Brad Rogers, the company’s president and chief operating officer.

“We want to be the Monsanto of pot,” Rogers told BNN Bloomberg in a recent interview. “Right now, we’re in control of our own destiny with supply. We need to be. But the farmers can farm and we can take that raw material and process that in any way shape or form.”

Bayer AG bought Monsanto Co. and its portfolio of seeds for US$63 billion in June, creating the world’s largest seed and pesticides maker. The name of Monsanto, however, has for years been synonymous with opponents of genetically modified seeds. Rogers said he believes his Vaughan, Ont.-based firm will not carry the same stigma as Monsanto following the U.S. agrochemical company’s controversies involving traces of genetically-modified genes found in organic crops, adding that he doesn’t expect any similar issues working with farmers on its seed-program.

CannTrust’s pilot program is recruiting farmers for next year’s crop and enticing them with prices that could easily double or triple their current acreage yield, according to Rogers. If successful, the company could ditch its growing business altogether and let farmers grow their cannabis crop for them, he added.

“We don’t need to have the infrastructure. As a producer, you can cut your cost of infrastructure down to nothing, cultivate in a simple hoop house and have up to three crops a year depending on how you heat it,” Rogers said. “Eventually, we’re going to be out of the grow game and be in the seed provision game.”

Keith Currie, head of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and a Collingwood-area hay and sweet corn farmer, is cautiously optimistic about farmers’ involvement in cannabis.

“We don’t know a lot about it yet, but there’s going to be an opportunity there,” Currie told BNN Bloomberg in an interview. “There’s going to be people who will grow it for consumption but we need to know if there’s an economic opportunity as well.”

Meanwhile, some producers are looking to minimize their overhead, the biggest cost associated with growing cannabis, with something more high tech – robots. Aphria Inc., Aurora Cannabis Inc., Canopy Growth Corp. and Maricann Group Inc. are all in various stages of replacing the dozens of workers needed to snip off cannabis flower from plants with robots that will automate the entire process.

“They don’t call in sick, they don’t go on vacation and they work as hard as you want them to be,” said Vic Neufeld, Aphria’s chief executive, in an interview with BNN Bloomberg. The company is nearly done transitioning one of its Leamington, Ont. indoor facilities to be fully automated, he said. Doing so will reduce the company’s workforce from 15 workers per acre to about three, while slashing the cost per gram by about 20 per cent, Neufelt added.

“Labour will be a key restrictive factor for any greenhouse that has scale,” Neufeld said.

Some producers are also looking even longer term, casting an eye toward lab-grown cannabis that could eventually replace the millions of square feet of space built to grow the plant and reduce the cost of pot to a couple pennies per gram. Cronos Group Inc. recently announced a deal with Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks Inc. to develop microorganisms that can be cultivated and produce high quality cannabinoids such as THC and CBD. Meanwhile, Organigram Inc.’s $10-million investment in Hyasynth Biologicals, which boosts its access to technology to produce phytocannabinoids in a lab, has been described by the company as a potential “game changer.”

“We’re putting together plans now for some larger scale manufacturing and putting together our team so we can do deals with bigger [licensed producers] and pharmaceutical companies across the industry,” said Hyasynth’s chief executive Kevin Chen in a Sept. 13 television interview with BNN Bloomberg.

Cannabis Canada is BNN Bloomberg’s in-depth series exploring the stunning formation of the entirely new – and controversial – Canadian recreational marijuana industry. Read more from the special series here and subscribe to our Cannabis Canada newsletter to have the latest marijuana news delivered directly to your inbox every day.

‘Buy It or Else’: How Monsanto and BASF Forced a Toxic Weed Killer on Farmers

That’s the choice soybean farmers such as Will Glazik face. The past few summers, farmers near Glazik’s central Illinois farm have sprayed so much of the weed killer dicamba at the same time that it has polluted the air for hours and sometimes days.

As Glazik puts it, there are two types of soybeans: Monsanto’s, which are genetically engineered to withstand dicamba, and everyone else’s.

Glazik’s soybeans have been the damaged ones. His soybean leaves will curl up, then the plants will become smaller and weaker. He’s lost as much as 40 bushels an acre in some fields, a huge loss when organic soybeans are $ 20 a bushel. He has to hold his breath every year to see if the damage will cause him to lose his organic certification.

His neighbors who spray dicamba are frustrated with him, he said. There’s an easy solution to avoid damage, they tell him: Buy Monsanto’s seeds.

This reality is what Monsanto was counting on when it launched dicamba-tolerant crops, an investigation by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found.

Monsanto’s new system was supposed to be the future of farming, providing farmers with a suite of seeds and chemicals that could combat more and more weeds that were becoming harder to kill.

Instead, the system’s rollout has led to millions of acres of crop damage across the Midwest and South; widespread tree death in many rural communities, state parks and nature preserves; and an unprecedented level of strife in the farming world.

Executives from Monsanto and BASF, a German chemical company that worked with Monsanto to launch the system, knew their dicamba weed killers would cause large-scale damage to fields across the United States but decided to push them on unsuspecting farmers anyway, in a bid to corner the soybean and cotton markets.

Monsanto and BASF have denied for years that dicamba is responsible for damage, blaming farmers making illegal applications, weather events and disease. The companies insist that when applied according to the label, dicamba stays on target and is an effective tool for farmers.

“This is the first product in American history that literally destroys the competition . You buy it or else.”

Over the past year, the Midwest Center reviewed thousands of pages of government and internal company documents released through lawsuits, sat in the courtroom for weeks of deliberation, interviewed farmers affected by dicamba and weed scientists dealing with the issue up close. This story provides the most comprehensive picture of what Monsanto and BASF knew about dicamba’s propensity to harm farmers’ livelihoods and the environment before releasing the weed killer.

The investigation found:

  • Monsanto and BASF released their products knowing that dicamba would cause widespread damage to soybean and cotton crops that weren’t resistant to dicamba. They used ​ “ protection from your neighbors” as a way to sell more of their products. In doing so, the companies ignored years of warnings from independent academics, specialty crop growers and their own employees.
  • Monsanto limited testing that could potentially delay or deny regulatory approval of dicamba. For years, Monsanto struggled to keep dicamba from drifting in its own tests. In regulatory tests submitted to the EPA, the company sprayed the product in locations and under weather conditions that did not mirror how farmers would actually spray it. Midway through the approval process, with the EPA paying close attention, the company decided to stop its researchers from conducting tests.
  • Even after submitting data that the EPA used to approve dicamba in 2016 , Monsanto scientists knew that many questions remained. The company’s own research showed dicamba mixed with other herbicides was more likely to cause damage. The company also prevented independent scientists from conducting their own tests and declined to pay for studies that would potentially give them more information about dicamba’s real-world impact.
  • Although advertised as helping out customers, the companies’ investigations of drift incidents were designed to limit their liability, find other reasons for the damage and never end with payouts to farmers. For example, BASF told pesticide applicators that sometimes it is not safe to spray even if following the label to the letter, placing liability squarely on the applicators.
  • The two companies were in lockstep for years. Executives from Monsanto and BASF met at least 19 times from 2010 on to focus on the dicamba-tolerant cropping system, including working together on the development of the technology, achieving regulatory approval for the crops and herbicides and the commercialization of crops.

Monsanto released seeds resistant to dicamba in 2015 and 2016 without an accompanying weed killer, knowing that off-label spraying of dicamba, which is illegal, would be ​ “ rampant.” At the same time, BASF ramped up production of older versions of dicamba that were illegal to apply to the crops and made tens of millions of dollars selling the older versions, which were more likely to cause move off of where they were applied.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018 , refused to grant an interview with the Midwest Center. Company officials did not respond to requests for comment, instead issuing a statement.

Spokesman Kyel Richard said the company ​ “ has seen an outpouring of support from grower organizations and our customers.”

“ We continue to stand with the thousands of farmers who rely on this technology as part of their integrated weed management program,” Richard said.

BASF also did not respond to requests for comment, instead issuing a statement.

BASF spokeswoman Odessa Patricia Hines said that the company’s version of dicamba has ​ “ different physical properties and compositions” than Monsanto’s. Hines said the company is continuing to improve its dicamba technology.

A federal court banned the herbicide earlier this year, but the EPA reinstated dicamba for five more years in October.

Earlier this year, a federal jury sided with a Missouri peach farmer who sued the companies for driving his orchard out of business. The jury awarded Bill Bader $ 15 million for his losses and $ 250 million in punitive damages designed to punish Bayer. Bayer and BASF are appealing the verdict. The punitive damages were later reduced to $ 60 million.

This photo shows a Monsanto facility in Jerseyville, Illinois, in 2015. Monsanto, which was purchased by Bayer in 2018, released the dicamba-tolerant crops, beginning in 2015. Photo courtesy of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Hines of BASF pointed out that in the Missouri trial: ​ “ The jury’s verdict found that only Monsanto’s conduct warranted punitive damages.”

Following the trial, Bayer announced a $ 400 million settlement with farmers harmed by dicamba, including $ 300 million to soybean farmers. Bayer said they expect BASF to pay for part of the settlement.

An attorney for Bader called the companies’ conduct ​ “ a conspiracy to create an ecological disaster in order to increase their profits” in court filings. The case largely revolved around showing the companies knew dicamba would harm thousands of farmers.

According to court exhibits, in October 2015 , Monsanto projected it would receive nearly 2 , 800 complaints from farmers during the 2017 growing season, a figure based on one-in- 10 farmers having a complaint.

However, even one Monsanto executive knew these projections might be low, according to court records. In late August 2016 , Boyd Carey, a Ph.D. crop scientist overseeing the claims process for Monsanto, realized it might be more like one-in-five and asked for a budget increase from $ 2 . 4 million to $ 6 . 5 million to investigate claims. Carey testified that he was awarded the increase.

The projected number of complaints rose to more than 3 , 200 for 2018 , before going down. After 2018 , Monsanto figured that fewer farmers would be harmed because more farmers would switch to Monsanto’s crops to avoid being damaged, Carey testified in the Bader trial.

Dicamba affects all parts of Glazik’s operation. He grows organic soybeans to avoid exposure to toxic pesticides. He also likes the higher premiums and the improved soil quality. But with dicamba in the air, he’s less likely to be successful.

He now has to plant his soybeans later each year. Soybeans are less likely to be severely damaged when they’re small, and planting them later than usual means they’ll be smaller when the inevitable cloud of weed killer envelops his crops. Later planting typically means a bit of yield loss. It also means a later harvest, which limits planting of cover crops Glazik uses to improve his soil.

“ All crop damage aside,” he said, the weed killer is everywhere. Oaks, hickories and other trees are damaged near his farm, both in the country and in town, he said. ​ “ The fact is that the chemical can volatilize and move with the wind and in the air. We’re breathing it.”

A ​ ‘ potential disaster’

For two decades, Monsanto made billions of dollars with Roundup Ready crops, which had been genetically engineered to withstand being sprayed by the weed killer and adopted by nearly every American soybean farmer. But by the mid-to-late 2000 s, Roundup was starting to fail. Farmer’s fields were overwhelmed with ​ “ superweeds” that had developed resistance to Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate.

In response, Monsanto developed new soybean and cotton seeds that were genetically engineered to withstand being sprayed by both glyphosate and dicamba, a very effective weed killer used since the 1960 s. It was also touted as the company’s largest biotechnology rollout in company history. In just three years, Monsanto’s dicamba-tolerant system was able to capture up to three-fourths of total soybean acreage, an area the size of Michigan.

Dicamba was not widely used during the growing season because of its propensity to move off-target and harm other plants. Because of its limited use, fewer weeds were resistant to it, making it an effective replacement for Roundup. Monsanto even dubbed the crops as its money-maker’s next generation, calling them Roundup Ready 2 Xtend.

But the company faced a problem with dicamba: The weed killer drifted onto non-resistant plants, some as far as miles away. In its own testing over the years, Monsanto had accidentally harmed its own crops dozens of times.

As far back as 2009 , Monsanto and BASF received warnings about dicamba from several sources — one company called it a ​ “ potential disaster,” according to court records — but they decided to plow ahead anyway.

“ DON’T DO IT; expect lawsuits,” wrote one Monsanto employee, summarizing academic surveys the company commissioned about dicamba’s use.

In order to commercialize dicamba, both Monsanto and BASF worked to develop new formulations with low volatility.

Off-target movement from dicamba can happen in two main ways: drift and volatilization. Drift is when the chemical’s particles move off the field when they are sprayed, generally by wind in the seconds or minutes after it is applied. Volatilization is when dicamba particles turn from a liquid to a gas in the hours or days after the herbicide is applied.

Damage from volatilization frequently occurs through a process called ​ “ atmospheric loading,” which is when so much dicamba is sprayed at the same time that it is unable to dissipate and persists in the air for hours or days poisoning whatever it comes into contact with.

Volatilization is particularly concerning because dicamba can move for miles and harm non-target crops, especially soybeans, and even lawns and gardens. Tomatoes, grapes and other specialty crops are also at-risk of being damaged.

“The one thing most acres of beans have in common is dicamba damage. There must be a huge cloud of dicamba blanketing the Missouri Bootheel.”

Despite being touted as less volatile, the new versions — Monsanto’s XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology and BASF’s Engenia — were unable to stop the movement entirely.

During its 2012 – 2014 testing of an older version of XtendiMax, Monsanto had at least 73 off-target incidents, according to court documents.

In 2014 , Monsanto had significant dicamba damage at a training facility in Portageville, Mo. Even in its own promotional videos, Monsanto couldn’t prevent non-dicamba tolerant soybeans from showing symptoms of damage.

The EPA took note of an incident where, through volatilization, dicamba turned into a gas and apparently floated more than 2 miles away, much farther than it was supposed to. During that incident, no one had measured how badly the crops had been damaged and the EPA was unable to definitively determine the symptoms were caused by dicamba. The EPA decided that was an ​ “ uncertainty” and approved the use of the weed killer with a 110 -foot buffer zone.

In 2015 , knowing the EPA was keeping an eye on off-target movement, Monsanto decided to halt all testing of XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology. According to court records, it kept its own employees, who were interested in developing recommendations for farmers, from testing, and it limited trials by independent academics in order to maintain a ​ “ clean slate.” It asked BASF to halt its dicamba testing as well.

When a weed science professor at the University of Arkansas asked Monsanto for a little bit of Xtendimax to test its volatility, the company told him it would have difficulty producing enough dicamba for both him and its independent tests.

A Monsanto employee, who worked at the company for 35 years, didn’t think much of that explanation when he forwarded the email to a colleague.

“ Hahaha difficulty in producing enough product for field testing,” he wrote. ​ “ Hahaha bullshit.”

Illegal spraying a ​ ‘ ticking time bomb’

Weeds cut into farmers’ profits. With low profit margins, farmers will use any tool they can to control weeds.

Monsanto recognized this in 2015 and 2016 when they released dicamba-tolerant crops without their new versions of dicamba. An internal Monsanto slide shows the company knew that many farmers would likely illegally spray older, more volatile versions and harm other farmers’ crops.

But the company decided the benefits of establishing a market share outweighed the risks and launched the cotton crops in 2015 . The EPA allowed farmers to spray other weed killers on the crops, and Monsanto decided to launch the seeds with ​ “ a robust communication plan that dicamba cannot be used.”

When the seeds were sold, Monsanto put a pink sticker on each bag to indicate it was illegal to spray dicamba on the crops in 2015 . The company also sent letters to all growers and retailers, among other tactics, to limit illegal applications of dicamba.

However, in internal communications in April 2015 , members of Monsanto’s cotton team joked about this risky strategy.

In Oct. 2015 , a BASF employee reported hearing that growers sprayed older versions of dicamba on the cotton that year.

Monsanto doubled down on this risky strategy in 2016 , releasing dicamba-tolerant soybean crops without a weed killer, too. Meanwhile, Monsanto also declined to investigate drift incidents in 2015 and 2016 .

BASF also benefited from Monsanto’s decision. The company’s sales of older versions of dicamba spiked in 2016 . Retailers sold $ 100 million worth of its older versions of the weed killer, compared to about $ 60 million annually in 2014 and 2015 , according to internal documents. BASF documents indicated the sales increased because of dicamba-tolerant seeds.

In the summer of 2016 , BASF sales representatives in the field were reporting older versions of dicamba causing damage, hinting the problem was predictable.

“ The one thing most acres of beans have in common is dicamba damage. There must be a huge cloud of dicamba blanketing the Missouri Bootheel,” a BASF employee wrote in a July 4 , 2016 , report. ​ “ That ticking time bomb finally exploded.”

n 2018, about 41% of all soybeans planted were genetically modified to withstand dicamba. In 2019, 70% of cotton seeds planted were genetically modified to withstand dicamba, according to the EPA. Photo courtesy of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Drift expected to drive sales

Dicamba drift led to widespread news coverage. Monsanto and BASF expected to turn it all into more money.

In an internal document, Monsanto told its sales teams to target growers that weren’t interested in dicamba and dicamba-resistant crops. The sales pitch? Purchasing Monsanto’s products would protect them from their neighbors.

In April 2017 , a market research document prepared by Bank of America found many farmers were doing just that.

“ Interesting assessment that much of the Xtend acreage was planted to protect themselves from neighbors who might be using dicamba? Gotta admit I would not have expected this in a market research document,” a Monsanto executive wrote.

In internal slides from a September 2016 meeting, BASF identified ​ “ defensive planting” as a potential market opportunity. BASF also had a market research document that found defensive planting was driving sales.

However, a ​ “ tough questions” memo distributed to BASF employees in November 2017 told employees the opposite: ​ “ We have not considered ​ ‘ defensive planting’ in our sales projections.”

Even as thousands of farms across millions of acres of cropland were being damaged, Monsanto officials were touting the damage as a sales opportunity.

“ I think we can significantly grow business and have a positive effect on the outcome of 2017 if we reach out to all the driftee people,” another Monsanto sales employee wrote in an email that year.

One of those customers was Bill Bader, the peach farmer who sued Monsanto for destroying his orchard. Bader testified that while he could not protect his peach trees, in 2019 he planted dicamba-tolerant soybeans to help protect his soybean crops from getting damaged.

“ This is the first product in American history that literally destroys the competition,” Bader’s attorney, Billy Randles, said. ​ “ You buy it or else.”

Research designed to downplay harm

For years, the EPA told Monsanto it needed to address volatility in its dicamba studies when applying for regulatory approval. But the tests Monsanto conducted did not reflect real-world conditions.

Dicamba would primarily be sprayed on soybeans, but 2015 studies submitted to the EPA were conducted at a cotton field in Texas and a dirt field in Georgia. Neither state has a large amount of soybeans. This guidance followed directives from Monsanto lobbyists that incorporated earlier Monsanto research showing that higher volatility was detected on fields with soybeans.

In addition, Monsanto did not follow the rules that would eventually be codified on the label.

During the testing in Texas, wind speeds were 1 . 9 to 4 . 9 miles per hour. In Georgia, wind speeds were 1 . 5 to 3 miles per hour. According to the label the EPA approved, dicamba can only be sprayed with wind speeds between 3 and 10 miles per hour. Spraying at low wind speeds is more likely to lead to volatilization because there is increased risk of a temperature inversion, which is when cooler air is caught beneath a layer of warmer air making gases more likely to persist near the ground.

After Monsanto submitted the tests to the EPA, the company still had a lot of unknowns about its product’s volatility, according to internal emails.

A Monsanto researcher wrote an email in February 2016 to his coworkers that underscored how little the company knew about the propensity of dicamba to damage crops.

“ We don’t know how long a sensitive plant needs in a natural setting to show volatility damage. We don’t know what concentration in the air causes a response, either,” he wrote. ​ “ There is a big difference for plants exposed to dicamba vapor for 24 vs. 48 hours. Be careful using this externally.”

Despite the design of the studies, and the EPA’s own studies that showed dicamba posed a risk to 322 protected species of animals and plants, the agency conditionally approved the herbicide in 2016 . The agency determined that mitigation measures — such as not spraying near specialty crops and endangered species habitats, wind speed restrictions, and a ban on aerial applications — would keep spray droplets on target.

It was only approved for two years, when the agency would review its approval again.

After the conditional approval, BASF knew dicamba still posed risks. While BASF told farmers dicamba drift wouldn’t hurt their bottom lines, the company privately told pesticide applicators that any drift they caused could decrease farmers’ harvests, according to internal BASF documents. A BASF executive said ​ “ from a practical standpoint” Engenia was not different from older dicamba versions.

Even Monsanto’s sales teams were having problems with dicamba’s reputation after the EPA approved the weed killer.

In an internal email, a Monsanto salesman took issue with BASF changing how it publicly discussed its dicamba product: It used to say volatility was not a problem, but now it said it was. Another chemical company saying volatility was bad could hurt Monsanto’s sales.

“ We need to get on this right now!” the salesman emailed his colleagues. ​ “ Deny! Deny! DENY!”

Estimates of dicamba-injured soybean acreage as reported by state extension weed scientists as of Oct. 15, 2017. Map created by Prof. Kevin Bradley at the University of Missouri.

‘ Never admit guilt’

In 2017 , the first season that the new versions of dicamba were approved, damage reached unprecedented levels. Around 3 . 6 million acres of soybeans were damaged, according to an estimate from the University of Missouri.

In July of that year, Monsanto executives scheduled a meeting to discuss how to combat coverage of complaints.

“ We need REAL scientific support for our product to counteract the supposition happening in the market today,” a Monsanto executive wrote in an email. ​ “ To be frank, dealers and growers are losing confidence in Xtendimax.”

In late summer 2017 , Monsanto had started to blame damage on a BASF weed killer, which is used on the main competitor to Monsanto’s own soybeans. In December 2017 , Monsanto agreed to drop that argument as part of a defense strategy with BASF against farmers.

Both Monsanto and BASF took steps to shield themselves from lawsuits.

The form Monsanto told its investigators to use when examining farmer complaints was ​ “ developed to gather data that could defend Monsanto,” according to an internal company presentation. Later, Monsanto said that 91 % of applicators using the form self-reported errors in spraying dicamba.

“ I was always told to never admit guilt,” he said.

On top of the investigations, the label left pesticide applicators liable for damage because it was nearly impossible to follow. A 2017 survey of applicators found that most trained sprayers had issues with dicamba even when spraying in good conditions and while following the label.

With damage being reported in 2017 , Monsanto also declined to pursue a study that would have given the company more information about how dicamba caused damage on real farms. A Monsanto off-target movement researcher sent a request for a project proposal to Exponent, which helped analyze the data Monsanto submitted to the EPA. The study could be done in less than two weeks and cost $ 6 , 000 .

The researcher forwarded the proposal to two Monsanto executives.

The company never acted on it, one testified in the trial.

‘ The problems have not gone away’

In order to combat the damage, the EPA developed new restrictions on dicamba. In doing so, the EPA dropped an idea that Monsanto opposed, and Monsanto dictated the new restrictions that were adopted.

State officials warned the EPA the changes wouldn’t work. They were right. In 2018 , at least 4 . 1 million acres were damaged, according to EPA documents.

Still, the EPA re-approved dicamba for the 2019 and 2020 growing seasons with new restrictions, some of which ignored agency scientists’ recommendations.

States also increasingly took measures into their own hands, implementing spraying cut-off dates and temperature restrictions.

The damage continued. Illinois, the nation’s largest soybean producing state, had more complaints than ever in 2019 . Iowa had ​ “ landscape level” damage in 2020 .

Aaron Hager, an associate professor of weed science at the University of Illinois, said it is clear the changes haven’t worked.

“ We have revised the label and revised it again,” Hager said. ​ “ The problems have not gone away.”

The EPA’s decision was eventually voided by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for failing to properly consider the impacts on farmers and the environment. The court ruled the agency gave too much deference to Bayer and also was lacking necessary data to show too much harm wouldn’t be done.

Dicamba was recently reapproved, and Bayer continues to invest in it. The company will release new soybean seeds designed to be resistant to dicamba and glufosinate, another BASF herbicide, to fill 20 million acres in 2021 . The company also continues to work toward approval of other seeds that are resistant to dicamba and other herbicides.

Glazik, the organic Illinois soybean farmer, works as a crops consultant advising other farmers on what to plant. As the damage has continued, he said, more and more of his clients are ​ “ feeling bullied into” buying the dicamba-tolerant crops. Others tell him, they have to spray dicamba or else they can’t control the weeds.

But as an organic farmer, Glazik said, no single herbicide is necessary. Instead, farmers have a choice. Well-managed fields can be weed-free without using toxic chemicals, he said.

“ You don’t have to have the dicamba spray to control weeds in a field,” he said.

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Monsanto’s Weed Killer, Dicamba, Divides Farmers

Twenty-five million acres have been planted with genetically modified seeds to encourage the spraying of the chemical. Farmers worry about damage to crops.

Michael Kemp with part of a soybean plant that was damaged by the weed killer dicamba on his farm in Missouri. Credit. Brandon Dill for The New York Times

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  • Sept. 21, 2017

Farmers planted a new kind of seed on 25 million acres of soybean and cotton fields this year. Developed by Monsanto, the seeds, genetically modified to be resistant to a weed killer called dicamba, are one of the biggest product releases in the company’s history.

But the seeds and the weed killer have turned some farmers — often customers of Monsanto, which sells both — against the company and alarmed regulators.

Farmers who have not bought the expensive new seeds, which started to appear last year, are joining lawsuits, claiming that their crops have been damaged by dicamba that drifted onto their farms. Arkansas announced a 120-day ban of the weed killer this summer, and it is considering barring its use next year after mid-April. Missouri briefly barred its sale in July. And the Environmental Protection Agency, not known for its aggressiveness under President Trump, is weighing its own action.

“I’m a fan of Monsanto. I’ve bought a lot of their products,” said Brad Williams, a Missouri farmer. “I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that there would be some kind of evil nefarious plot to put a defective product out there intentionally.”

Yet he has been dismayed both by damage to his soybean crops, which were within a wide area of farmland harmed by dicamba, and by the impact even to trees on his property. Leaves, he said, were “so deformed you couldn’t even really identify the differences between them.”

The dispute comes as American agriculture sits at a crossroads.

Genetically modified crops were introduced in the mid-1990s. They made it possible to spray weed killers — chiefly Monsanto’s Roundup — on plants after they emerged from the ground, ridding fields of weeds while leaving crops undamaged.

But weeds are becoming more resistant to Roundup, so the industry is developing seeds that are tolerant to more herbicides. Environmentalists and some weed scientists worry that making seeds resistant to more weed killers will increase the use of pesticides.

Monsanto and another company, BASF, have also developed a new, less volatile version of dicamba, which has been around for decades. DowDuPont, which has its own dicamba-resistant seed, is introducing crops resistant to 2,4-D, another old herbicide.

Monsanto formally challenged Arkansas’ ban earlier this month, insisting that 99 percent of its customers were satisfied. It plans to double the use of its new dicamba-resistant soybeans seeds to 40 million acres by next year.

“New technologies take some time to learn,” said Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s vice president for global strategy. “Thus far, what we’ve seen in the field, the vast majority, more than three-quarters of them, has been due to not following the label.”

The company has also claimed that Arkansas’ decision was “tainted by the involvement” of two scientists tied to a rival, Bayer. Considering that Bayer is acquiring Monsanto, it was an awkward step. Bayer called the men “pre-eminent weed scientists.”

Some foresaw drift problems with dicamba.

For years, Steve Smith, once a member of a dicamba advisory panel set up by Monsanto, urged the company to change course. Mr. Smith, the head of agriculture at Red Gold, a tomato processor based in Indiana, aired his concerns at a congressional hearing in 2010.

“The widespread use of dicamba is incompatible with Midwestern agriculture,” he said in his testimony. “Even the best, the most conscientious farmers cannot control where this weed killer will end up.”

Xtend is a Monsanto brand of genetically modified soybean. Credit. Brandon Dill for The New York Times

Monsanto eventually removed him from its advisory panel, citing what it called a “conflict of interest.” Mr. Smith had helped start a coalition of farm interests critical of dicamba and 2,4-D.

Mr. Partridge said such internal alarms had not been ignored.

“Those concerns are what led to us developing the low-volatility formulation” of the herbicide, he said.

Business & Economy: Latest Updates

Dicamba does kill weeds. Brent Schorfheide, a farmer in southern Illinois, said it had been extremely effective on those no longer responsive to Roundup.

“It cleaned everything up,” he said. “Without it, our fields would be a disaster.”

But some farmers say they face a difficult choice — either buy the new genetically modified seeds or run the risk that their soybeans would be damaged more by a neighbor’s spraying of weed killers than by the weeds themselves.

“If you don’t buy Xtend, you’re going to be hurt,” said Michael Kemp, a Missouri farmer, referring to the brand name of Monsanto’s seeds.

The leaves on his soybeans puckered and curled after they were exposed to dicamba, a problem known as cupping. The cost will not be clear until after harvest.

“You’re going to have to buy their product because their chemical is drifting around,” he said, adding that growing crops that are not modified is becoming impossible. “The people who are growing non-G.M.O., which I did for a while, they’re just left out in left field, I guess.”

Steve Smith, a member of an advisory panel to Monsanto, spoke out against the weed killer dicamba, and the company removed him from the panel. Credit. Kelley Jordan Schuyler for The New York Times

A pivotal debate centers on how damage is caused.

Monsanto cites particles that drift in the wind when the product is sprayed improperly or when unapproved versions of dicamba are used. That can be addressed through training and enforcement.

But another problem is as much to blame, many farmers and weed scientists say, one that raises questions about the entire product program.

Because genetically modified crops allow dicamba to be sprayed later in the year, after crops emerge from the ground, and in hotter and more humid weather, the chemical is susceptible to what is known as “volatility” — it can turn into a gas and drift onto whatever happens to be nearby.

While Monsanto and BASF modified the new versions of the herbicide they are selling, they have not entirely solved the problem. So much dicamba is being used that even a small percentage of drift can cause widespread damage.

Arkansas and Missouri said they were still investigating complaints. The Missouri Department of Agriculture referred questions on the extent of the crop damage to Kevin Bradley, a weed scientist at the University of Missouri, who said more than three million acres had been affected.

In an email, he said that particles drifting in the wind during spraying “may have been the largest reason, but not by much,” adding, “I believe similar or perhaps slightly lower percentages can be attributed to volatility.”

In a statement, the E.P.A. said, “This is still an ongoing investigation and we cannot speculate on what the underlying causes of damage may be.”

A field of soybeans in Missouri. Farmers who have not bought new genetically modified seeds say their crops have been damaged by weed killers sprayed by others that drifted onto their farms. Credit. Brandon Dill for The New York Times

Odessa Hines, a spokeswoman for BASF, said, “There appears to be no single cause that explains all of the alleged symptomology,” adding, “We believe it’s premature to make final decisions.”

Monsanto has put the onus on farmers. In a letter to Arkansas’ governor last week, a top company executive said problems were “all readily correctable through additional training, education and enforcement.” The company has already trained about 50,000 people to apply the weed killer properly.

The instructions are quite complex, discouraging spraying both when it is too windy or when it is not windy enough. Some farmers are chafing at the company’s approach.

“We may be rural hicks, but we’re not stupid,” said Kenneth Qualls, an Arkansas farmer who is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits. “We know how to apply chemicals. They are going to blame it on the farmer to reduce their liability.”

Health risks are also a contentious topic. The industry says dicamba and 2,4-D are long established. But Charles Benbrook, a weed scientist partly funded by the organic industry, said, “For both dicamba and 2,4-D, the reproductive risks and birth defects” are “most worrisome.”

Dicamba is only one issue facing Monsanto. Public officials in Europe are divided about reauthorizing Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate. In the United States, Monsanto faces litigation over cancer claims related to glyphosate. That litigation has raised questions of ghostwriting of both journalism and academic papers by the company.

But dicamba is arguably the greatest challenge.

“It’s really divided the farming community,” Mr. Qualls said. The husband of one of his cousins was shot dead in a dispute over dicamba drift, underlining the bitterness of the issue. A farmhand has been charged with murder in the case.

“It shocked the whole community and really the whole state,” Mr. Qualls said, adding that he was surprised there hadn’t been more violence.

“Some of these people who got victimized by this product are probably going to go out of business because of it,” he said. “They’ll have to put up their equipment for auction, and the people bidding on it will be the ones who put them out of business.”