Se­crecy pre­ceded US weed killer cri­sis

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

As the US grow­ing sea­son en­tered its peak this sum­mer, farm­ers be­gan post­ing star­tling pic­tures on so­cial me­dia: fields of beans, peach or­chards and veg­etable gar­dens with­er­ing away. The pho­to­graphs served as early warn­ings of a cri­sis that has dam­aged mil­lions of acres of farm­land. New ver­sions of the her­bi­cide di­camba de­vel­oped by Mon­santo and BASF, ac­cord­ing to farm­ers, have drifted across fields to crops un­able to with­stand it, a charge au­thor­i­ties are in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

As the cri­sis in­ten­si­fies, new de­tails pro­vided to Reuters by in­de­pen­dent re­searchers and reg­u­la­tors, and pre­vi­ously un­re­ported tes­ti­mony by a com­pany em­ployee, demon­strate the un­usual way Mon­santo in­tro­duced its prod­uct. The ap­proach, in which Mon­santo pre­vented key in­de­pen­dent test­ing of its prod­uct, went un­chal­lenged by the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency and nearly ev­ery state reg­u­la­tor.

Typ­i­cally, when a com­pany de­vel­ops a new agri­cul­tural prod­uct, it com­mis­sions its own tests and shares the re­sults and data with reg­u­la­tors. It also pro­vides prod­uct sam­ples to uni­ver­si­ties for ad­di­tional scru­tiny. Reg­u­la­tors and uni­ver­sity re­searchers then work to­gether to de­ter­mine the safety of the prod­uct. In this case, Mon­santo de­nied re­quests by uni­ver­sity re­searchers to study its XtendiMax with Va­porGrip for vo­latil­ity - a mea­sure of its ten­dency to va­por­ize and drift across fields.

The re­searchers in­ter­viewed by Reuters - Ja­son Nor­swor­thy at the Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas, Kevin Bradley at the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­souri and Aaron Hager at the Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois - said Mon­santo pro­vided sam­ples of XtendiMax be­fore it was ap­proved by the EPA. How­ever, the sam­ples came with con­tracts that ex­plic­itly for­bade vo­latil­ity test­ing. “This is the first time I’m aware of any her­bi­cide ever brought to mar­ket for which there were strict guide­lines on what you could and could not do,” Nor­swor­thy said.

The re­searchers de­clined to pro­vide Reuters a copy of the Mon­santo con­tracts, say­ing they were not au­tho­rized to do so. Mon­santo’s Vice Pres­i­dent of Global Strat­egy, Scott Par­tridge, said the com­pany pre­vented the test­ing be­cause it was un­nec­es­sary. He said the com­pany be­lieved the prod­uct was less volatile than a pre­vi­ous di­camba for­mula that re­searchers found could be used safely. “To get mean­ing­ful data takes a long, long time,” he said. “This prod­uct needed to get into the hands of grow­ers.”

‘Jeop­ar­dize the Fed­eral La­bel’

Mon­santo em­ployee Boyd Carey, an agron­o­mist, laid out the com­pany’s ra­tio­nale for block­ing the in­de­pen­dent re­search at a hear­ing of the Arkansas Plant Board’s Pes­ti­cide Com­mit­tee in the sum­mer of 2016. A meet­ing sum­mary by the Arkansas Leg­is­la­ture’s Joint Bud­get Com­mit­tee de­scribed Carey’s tes­ti­mony as fol­lows: “Boyd Carey is on record on Aug 8 stat­ing that the Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas nor any other uni­ver­sity was given the op­por­tu­nity to test Va­porGrip in fear that the re­sults may jeop­ar­dize the fed­eral la­bel.”

Ef­forts to reach Carey were not suc­cess­ful. Mon­santo de­clined to com­ment on his tes­ti­mony. To be sure, com­plaints about dam­aged crops are still un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion and there is no ev­i­dence that in­de­pen­dent test­ing of XtendiMax’s vo­latil­ity would have al­tered the course of the cri­sis. But it would have given reg­u­la­tors a more com­plete pic­ture of the for­mula’s prop­er­ties as they de­cided if and how to let farm­ers use it, agri­cul­ture ex­perts said.

In the end, the EPA ap­proved the prod­uct with­out the added test­ing in Septem­ber. It said it made its de­ci­sion af­ter re­view­ing com­pany-sup­plied data, in­clud­ing some mea­sur­ing vo­latil­ity. “EPA’s analysis of the data has shown re­duced vo­latil­ity po­ten­tial with newer for­mu­la­tions,” the EPA said in a July 27 state­ment. How­ever, EPA spokes­woman Amy Gra­ham told Reuters the agency is “very con­cerned about the re­cent re­ports of crop dam­age” and is re­view­ing re­stric­tions on di­camba la­bels. Mon­santo Chief Tech­nol­ogy Of­fi­cer Robert Fra­ley said, “We firmly be­lieve that our prod­uct if ap­plied ac­cord­ing to the in­struc­tions on the la­bel will not move off tar­get and dam­age any­one.”

States Ap­prove With­out More Test­ing

Com­pa­nies can limit in­de­pen­dent test­ing be­cause the sub­stances are pro­pri­etary. When sam­ples are pro­vided to re­searchers, lawyers ham­mer out con­tracts de­tail­ing how test­ing will be con­ducted and re­sults will be han­dled, but rarely do agree­ments limit what the prod­ucts can be tested for, ac­cord­ing to re­searchers in­ter­viewed by Reuters. For in­stance, BASF, which in­tro­duced its ri­val her­bi­cide, En­ge­nia, around the same time, said it al­lowed sev­eral uni­ver­sity re­searchers to eval­u­ate its “off-tar­get im­pact and ap­pli­ca­tion pa­ram­e­ters.”

Nor­swor­thy, of the Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas, con­firmed he had been per­mit­ted by BASF to study En­ge­nia for vo­latil­ity and that the re­sults showed less vo­latil­ity than pre­vi­ous di­camba for­mu­la­tions. BASF says its prod­uct is safe when prop­erly ap­plied. The EPA did not an­swer ques­tions about whether it no­ticed a lack of in­put from uni­ver­sity re­searchers about XtendiMax’s vo­latil­ity or whether it re­quested such test­ing. It also did not ad­dress whether the lack of in­de­pen­dent re­search played into its de­ci­sion to give the prod­uct an abridged two-year reg­is­tra­tion, less than the 20 years ex­perts say is more com­mon. The agency did the same for BASF’s En­ge­nia.

“The EPA placed time lim­its on the reg­is­tra­tion to al­low the agency to either let it ex­pire or to eas­ily make the nec­es­sary changes in the reg­is­tra­tion if there are prob­lems,” Gra­ham, the EPA spokes­woman, said. Af­ter the EPA signed off, Mon­santo sought ap­proval from in­di­vid­ual states, which de­ter­mine whether agri­cul­tural prod­ucts are suit­able for their cli­mates and geogra­phies.

To help them do that, Mon­santo shared its XtendiMax test­ing re­sults with state reg­u­la­tors. But it only sup­plied that data in fin­ished form, Mon­santo’s Carey told the Arkansas Plant Board meet­ing, mean­ing it with­held un­der­ly­ing data that could be an­a­lyzed in­de­pen­dently by the reg­u­la­tors. Only Arkansas wanted more. Terry Walker, the di­rec­tor of the Arkansas Plant Board, said the state asked Mon­santo for ex­tra test­ing, but the com­pany re­fused. “As the sys­tem pro­gressed and it got closer to EPA ap­proval, the board kept ask­ing for lo­cal data,” Walker said. “That did not hap­pen.”

Mon­santo’s Fra­ley said the com­pany could not honor Arkansas’ re­quest within the EPA’s time­line. “Given the tim­ing of the ap­proval... there sim­ply wasn’t the op­por­tu­nity to do the ad­di­tional test­ing,” he said. Arkansas blocked Mon­santo’s prod­uct be­cause of the lack of ex­tra vo­latil­ity test­ing by uni­ver­si­ties, but ap­proved BASF’s be­cause it had not lim­ited such test­ing and the re­sults were ac­cept­able. Thirty-three other states - ev­ery other state where the prod­ucts were mar­keted - ap­proved both prod­ucts.

Af­ter Arkansas blocked XtendiMax in De­cem­ber, crop dam­age be­gan to ap­pear in the state any­way. In­ves­ti­ga­tors try­ing to de­ter­mine the cause of the dam­age are con­sid­er­ing a range of pos­si­bil­i­ties in­clud­ing prob­lems with or im­proper use of En­ge­nia or il­le­gal use of XtendiMax or ear­lier for­mu­la­tions. In July, the state banned all prod­ucts con­tain­ing di­camba. Some states in­clud­ing Illi­nois, Mis­souri and Ten­nessee said they do not seek the more data if prod­ucts pass EPA scru­tiny. “The EPA is the fed­eral agency re­spon­si­ble for ap­prov­ing and reg­is­ter­ing pes­ti­cides for sale and use,” said Mis­souri Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture spokes­woman Sarah Al­sager. “The Depart­ment does not per­form field test­ing or so­licit lo­cal in­put.” Some states are now form­ing task forces to de­ter­mine what should be done about the dam­age. — Reuters

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