In the past 3 years, Monsanto’s (now Bayer) genetically modified soybean seeds have dominated 60% to 70% of the market. The Xtend soybeans bring in about $1 billion a year for Bayer, which acquired Monsanto in June 2018. But sales of the seeds are being driven by fear, and that fear has birthed an anti-trust lawsuit against the agrochemical giant.
Xtend soybeans have been genetically altered to withstand an herbicide called dicamba. The weed-killer has been around for decades, but it poses a problem for farmers because it typically kills non-gmo soybeans. Farmers who plant Xtend seeds, however, can spray dicamba all over their crops without worrying that their soybeans will be killed in the process.
Dennis Wentworth, a farmer in central Illinois, said:
“One hundred percent of the soybeans that we plant are Xtend soybeans. It controls the weeds. Kills the weeds. That’s the bottom line. It doesn’t affect the crop.”
Many farmers say dicamba has become their go-to herbicide because it kills weeds that other herbicides can’t. They also claim the new seeds produce a bigger yield.
However, many of these same farmers claim they started planting Xtend soybeans because they had no other option. Take Randy Brazel, for example. Brazel grows soybeans in southeastern Missouri and western Tennessee. In early December 2018, the farmer had already ordered non-GMO soybean seeds, but a phone call from a neighbor made him realize it was Xtend soybeans or nothing.
“I have a neighbor, a friend. He calls me and says, ‘I am going to have to go dicamba.'”
Dicamba is known to drift far and wide, including to other farmers’ fields, where it can harm non-targeted plants. Brazel knew that if his neighbor decided to spray dicamba, his own crops were at risk.
Last year, as of July 15, 2018, about 1.1 million acres of soybeans had been destroyed by dicamba.
Dicamba drift, as it’s called, has been such a problem that in 2017, officials in Arkansas and Missouri enacted a 120-day ban on the use of the herbicide. A few months later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) entered into an agreement with Monsanto and other makers of dicamba products dictating that dicamba would be classified as “restricted use” for the 2018 growing season.
Under the agreement, dicamba could only be sprayed by certified applicators with specific training; spraying would only be permitted when winds were less than 16 kilometers, or just under 10 mph, and spraying would be restricted to certain times of the day. Furthermore, farmers were required to keep detailed records of dicamba use.
Brazel knew the risks and wasn’t willing to lose his soybean crop, so he canceled the non-GMO seeds he had ordered and instead ordered Xtend soybeans.
“Then I have to get on the phone and call every other neighbor and say, ‘Listen, I did not want to do this. But I am going to be forced to go dicamba.’ Well, then that forces all those neighbors to call their neighbors. And eventually what you have is a monopoly.”
That’s exactly what Bayer and other dicamba manufacturers are banking on, said Rob Robinson, CEO of Rob-See-Co. He has lost a lot of customers who decided to “go dicamba” out of fear that if they didn’t, their soybean crop would be damaged.
“At least on a local basis, they’re being sold with this idea. It’s actively part of the sales process.”
Seed companies remind farmers that if they plant Xtend seeds, they won’t see any dicamba damage, and they won’t have any uncomfortable discussions with their neighbors, according to Robinson.
He went on:
“Now, how far that goes up the management chain with Monsanto, now Bayer, I can’t tell you, but I know that locally, that’s the message.”
The anti-trust lawsuit, filed by several law firms on behalf of farmers, alleges that Bayer violated anti-trust law by selling dicamba-resistant seeds. The lawsuit claims that the company knew that the risk of dicamba drift could drive competitors out of the market.
Bayer maintains that dicamba is safe when used properly and points out that dicamba drift damage was less severe in 2018. It further claims that farmers are buying Xtend seeds because they offer better weed control and higher yields.
Bayer’s critics say the only reason there was less damage from drifting dicamba last year is because so many farmers have been strong-armed into buying Xtend soybeans.
Whatever the reasons, Bayer is making bank on the fears of American farmers.