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Monsanto dicamba petition a bare-knuckle approach, UA responds

Can company position itself as Arkansas farmers’ protector?

On the afternoon of Sept. 7, the years-long dicamba saga entered its next phase with Monsanto filing a petition with the Arkansas Plant Board. The filing comes following over 900 drift complaints in the state this summer and shortly after a task force convened by the governor recommended dicamba formulations be banned after April 15.

By taking the petition route, Monsanto would have any such ban lifted and leave farmers free to spray the company’s dicamba formulation, XtendiMax, during the 2018 growing season. If its petition is unsuccessful, the company is prepared to take the matter to court.

In the petition and material accompanying it, Monsanto’s list of grievances on the state’s approach to dicamba applications runs from insufficient scientific data and shoddy work by researchers to conflicts of interest from those — including long-time Delta Farm Press contributor Ford Baldwin — offering the task force advice.  

University of Arkansas response

On Sept. 8, a day after the petition was released and in a staunch rebuttal of Monsanto’s charges against university employees, Mark Cochran, Vice President-Agriculture for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, released the following statement:

“First, and most importantly, we stand by the integrity of our scientists and their science, including Dr. Jason Norsworthy, our internationally recognized researcher and his work, and all our weed scientists, as well as other public weed scientists on record in other states.

“We are confident in the science that we’ve used to advise the regulatory process in Arkansas.

“Even Monsanto recognizes his reputation. Just 48 hours before the petition was filed, the company invited Dr. Norsworthy to present a summary of national drift and volatility research at an academic summit on dicamba that the company is hosting in St. Louis this month. He has declined this invitation.

“We will examine every point in this petition and its appearing and disappearing group of supporting exhibits, and over time will respond factually to its major points.

“There are several points in the petition we need to address immediately: First, Norsworthy’s findings are anything but an outlier. It is consistent with research work in other states, including that of Kevin Bradley in Missouri, Tom Mueller and Larry Steckel in Tennessee, and elsewhere. 

“Second, none of our researchers has ever endorsed any product, but sometimes companies use our public comments and statements without our permission.

“Based on Monsanto’s allegations, we intend, under the terms of our agreements with Monsanto, to publish all data relevant to our dicamba work over the last few years.

“This petition isn’t just about a single herbicide, but it’s an attack on a whole profession — scientists whose careful work is meant to be of benefit to all.

“We have made our explanations available to the public, including at field days and through videos of the presentations that were and are still public on the Cooperative Extension Service site, Our public land grant research results are scientifically vetted and valid, and we are pledged to being transparent in our results.

Monsanto's position

Several hours after Monsanto released the petition, Scott Partridge, Monsanto vice president of global strategies, spoke with Delta Farm Press. His comments:

Why now and what are you trying to accomplish?

“At present there’s a ban in Arkansas. Arkansas is the only state out of 34 that failed to permit our (XtendiMax) as labeled by the EPA. The (Arkansas) governor created a process involving a task force to make recommendations to the Plant Board. The governor was looking for a long-term solution.

“The task force came up with a recommendation not based in science, not based in the factual experience of this year and, frankly, it’s arbitrary. That recommendation is to have a cut-off date of April 15 — essentially a ban of dicamba products for over-the-top application in-crop during the growing season.

“It’s a result of that action by (the task force) that we decided to start our own administrative rulemaking process. To do that, we were required to file a formal petition. … That formal petition essentially requests the Plant Board permit the use of low-volatility during the entire growing season.

“What this does is start the 30-days clock ticking. The Plant Board has 30 days now for our administrative process to run its course, for them to agree for them to work through a process of permitting the use of low-volatility dicamba formulation through the year, or they can be arbitrary and reject that and follow the recommendations of the task force.

“If they do that, there’s no need to finish their administrative process to the point it goes to the governor. If at the end of that process the result is an arbitrary cut-off date that takes this valuable tool out of the hands of Arkansas growers for yet another year, we’ll evaluate whether we take the next step, which would be to go to court to seek a rational result.”

Have you had any response yet?

“No. If you open the document, it’s 33 pages single-spaced with a 4-inch stack of scientific information and data. So, it’ll take anyone a while to digest it.”

Were you in coordination or communication with the governor’s office or the Arkansas Agriculture Department telling them this was coming down?

“No. We prepared this very recently and felt the best way to communicate our concerns was in chapter and verse.”

Conflicts of interest?

You brought in the specter, especially on the task force, of conflicts of interest. That’s really going to pique the interest of a lot of people in Arkansas because there are a lot of charges floating around of nepotism and conflicts of interest within the governor’s office and the Arkansas Agriculture Department – some of it involving Monsanto. Are you aware of that?

“I’ve heard lots of suggestions, rumor and innuendo.

“What I know needs to happen here is good science needs to apply. We look at the studies we did over seven-year period. … We need to put aside all the personalities … so growers in Arkansas have access to the best technology that’s out there to control problem weeds. To put the Arkansas soybean growers at a competitive disadvantage, once again, with soybean farmers from 33 other states is something the politicians in Arkansas should not permit happen.”

My understanding is there are other states looking at a (dicamba spraying) cut-off date. Is that not the case?

“We’re in discussion with every other state as well as the EPA. We can say other states are looking at this in a rational fashion. The emphasis I’m hearing is on increased training and education. The reason we’re hearing that is about 77 to 80 percent of off-target movement this year have been the result of not following the label in key areas such as buffer, existence of buffer or inadequate buffer, nozzles and boom length. All of that is correctable by education and training.

“If you look at the state of Georgia, the state had mandatory training for application of dicamba. You had to be certified by the state as having completed this training and education. We helped the state with that by providing training information and modules. There is a good deal of Xtend cotton, some soybeans, and a lot of susceptible crops from peanuts to vegetables.

“Do you know how many complaints … (in Georgia) on off-target movement? Not one.

“In Arkansas, where our product wasn’t used, there were more complaints about off-target movement than of all the other states combined.” 

My understanding is Arkansas has a training (regulation) as well.

“Well, we certainly didn’t train in Arkansas. We weren’t permitted to since our product wasn’t available there…”

Part of the reason you didn’t get registered (in Arkansas) is you bucked the rules on providing new formulations to weed scientists to test. Is that incorrect?

“There is no such rule. There is no law, no rule, regulation in that regard, at all. That’s a myth.”

That’s a myth?

“That’s spelled out in the petition. … That was a post-facto attempt by the Plant Board to change the rules. The Plant Board tried to create their own rules to suit whatever their agenda was.”

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