Dicamba On Trial: Despite Assurances To Farmers, BASF Told Applicators Dicamba May Cause Damage

The Rush Hudson Limbaugh Sr. United States Courthouse in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.

While BASF was telling farmers there would be no yield impacts from dicamba drift in 2017, the company was privately telling pesticide applicators that any drift they caused could cause yield loss, according to Monday video testimony from Gary Schmitz, tech service regional manager for the Midwest.

Schmitz was the first official from BASF to testify in the ongoing trial of the civil lawsuit filed by Bader Farms, the largest peach farm in Missouri. In the lawsuit, Bader Farms alleges that Monsanto, which was acquired by Bayer in 2018, and BASF knew their dicamba-related products released beginning in 2015 would cause damage to other farmers, yet released the products anyway. 

Monsanto released cotton seeds genetically engineered to withstand being sprayed by dicamba in 2015 and similar soybean seeds in 2016, but neither BASF nor Monsanto released accompanying herbicides, designed to be less volatile than older versions of dicamba, until 2017.

In 2015 and 2016, many farmers illegally sprayed BASF’s older versions of the volatile herbicide on their dicamba-tolerant crops, according to the lawsuit. Bader Farms alleges that it is no longer a sustainable business after being hit by dicamba drift each year since 2015.

BASF and Bayer deny the allegations, blaming the crop damage on farmers making illegal applications, weather events, disease and other issues. 

The statements about yield loss were in a training document for employees investigating dicamba drift complaints about BASF’s dicamba herbicide, called Engenia, after it was introduced in 2017, according to Schmitz’s testimony.

According to the document presented in court, if dicamba drift hits soybeans during reproductive phases, yield could suffer. Monsanto executives testified that the company’s version of dicamba, XtendiMax with VaporGrip, did not cause any “adverse” effects when used according to the label.

BASF has sold dicamba since the 1960s and accordingly has more history with the weedkiller, Schmitz said. After a YouTube video posted by Monsanto showed Monsanto employees applying dicamba, Luke Bozeman, the technical marketing manager for BASF, emailed Schmitz saying Monsanto makes “rookie mistakes on drift” and one cloud in the video was “messy.”

“I was always told never to admit guilt.”

The company’s intention was not to tell farmers one thing and pesticide applicators, who spray the chemicals on crops, another, but to ensure that applicators knew the risk involved, Schmitz said. He said the statements made more sense within the context of the training.

“I was always told never to admit guilt,” Schmitz wrote in an email to Dan Westberg, who is also a tech service regional manager for BASF, on March 21, 2017. In the email, Schmitz was making edits to the training document, mostly around telling investigators not to give their opinion on what happened to people they’re investigating, according to the testimony.

BASF has a company policy to never settle complaints about off-target movement and that applicators are always responsible, Schmitz said. 

But even if applicators follow the label, they still risk dicamba moving to other fields and causing symptomology, including cupped leaves, according to Schmitz’s testimony. Schmitz testified that the company told applicators to use their discretion, especially if a downwind farmer would be upset by symptomology. 

If it was their own fields or a friendly neighbor, spraying would be acceptable; otherwise, they should be aware that the responsibility is on the applicator, not BASF, Schmitz testified. 

Even with the symptomology, the crops would not suffer yield loss, Schmitz said.

Schmitz stood by that assertion, even though thousands of farmers alleged damage to more than 3.6 million acres of soybeans and other crops in 2017.

Many of those complaints were about volatility, but Schmitz said investigations by some of his team members found that some of the reported issues with “uniform drift” were due to tank contamination. 

Schmitz testified that many farmers spraying Engenia in 2017 had “the cleanest fields they’ve seen in years” thanks to the weedkiller’s ability to kill “superweeds” that had developed a resistance to Roundup and other weed killers.

As far back as 2012, when discussing the eventual commercialization of Engenia, Schmitz told other BASF employees that the weed killer is not “no” volatility but definitely “low” volatility. Schmitz said education and training were important because, in his experience with past rollouts of BASF’s dicamba products, including Clarity, the majority of farmers applied dicamba too recklessly, causing physical drift and leaving some customers to quit using those versions.

In the ramp-up toward the dicamba-tolerant system, the company had difficulty applying dicamba at its own seed plots, according to the testimony. In 2014, BASF received more than a dozen complaints from neighbors near BASF production fields near Shelbyville, Illinois, including some more than three-quarters of a mile away from the application site,  Schmitz testified. The problem was caused by improper application and was “highly emotional” for affected parties, an employee told Schmitz.

Leading up to the 2016 growing season, at least four BASF employees warned Schmitz that farmers would likely illegally apply BASF’s older versions of dicamba to Monsanto’s dicamba-tolerant soybeans, which had been released that year without an accompanying herbicide, he testified.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit, online newsroom offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues through data analysis, visualizations, in-depth reports and interactive web tools. Visit us online at www.investigatemidwest.org.

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