By Dan Charles
National Public Radio (10/26/17)
In a normal year, Kevin Bradley, a professor of weed science at the University of Missouri, would have spent his summer testing new ways to control a troublesome little plant called water hemp.
This has not been a normal year.
“I don’t even talk about weed management anymore,” Bradley tells me, and he sounds disgusted. “Nobody calls me and ask me those questions. I barely have time to even work with my graduate students. Everything is about dicamba. Every single day.”
Dicamba, an old weedkiller that is being used in new ways, has thrust Bradley and a half-dozen other university weed scientists into the unfamiliar role of whistleblower, confronting what they believe are misleading and scientifically unfounded claims by one of the country’s biggest seed and pesticide companies: Monsanto.
Monsanto’s explanation for what happened this summer, and how to prevent it, seems to be carrying the day in Washington, D.C. Two weeks ago, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will allow continued use of dicamba next year.
“It’s not comfortable. I’m like anybody else, I don’t like [it when] people are unhappy with me,” says Mike Owen, a weed specialist at Iowa State University. Then he chuckles. “But sometimes, like John Wayne said, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do!”
“Certainly, there’s not a weed scientist in any of these states who would back down, who would change their story,” says Aaron Hager, at the University of Illinois.
The tensions between Monsanto and the nation’s weed scientists actually began several years ago, when Monsanto first moved to make dicamba the centerpiece of a new weedkilling strategy. The company tweaked the genes in soybeans and cotton and created genetically modified varieties of those crops that can tolerate doses of dicamba. (Normally, dicamba kills those crops.) This allowed farmers to spray the weedkiller directly on their soybean or cotton plants, killing the weeds while their crops survived.
It’s an approach that Monsanto pioneered with crops that were genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate, or Roundup. After two decades of heavy exposure to glyphosate, however, devastating weeds like Palmer amaranth, or pigweed, developed resistance to it. So farmers are looking for new weedkilling tools. …