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Monsanto and Dicamba, a drama of Shakespearean proportions

(BUSINESS NEWS) Agriculture is easily the world’s most important industry but what happens when seed companies and chemical companies start battling?

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Let’s talk about weeds.

Not that kind of weed. Fun as it is to write about, socioeconomically speaking weed has nothing on weeds. Really get your head around the following number: per the USDA, and they’d know, as of 2012, 41 percent of the land area of the United States was used for agriculture.

That’s not “arable land” or “cleared land” or any other qualifier. All of it. From the peaks of the Rockies to the bit under the squeaky spot in your shower, two-fifths of this absurdly large country is used for one industry.

Between that and, yknow, keeping everybody from starving, agriculture is the Most Important Thing. Anything that changes how agriculture works quite literally changes the country.

Right now, there’s a scary consensus building among experts that it’s changing for the worse.

This is a tale of two names. The first is one you’ve probably heard. In fact, if you’re interested in agriculture or just follow the news (at quality outlets like American Genius, you well-informed, conscientious and terribly attractive person, you) you probably saw this name coming as soon as you knew this was about crops and drama: Monsanto.

Monsanto is a gigantic deal. They’re the world’s biggest seed supplier, with 26 percent of the global market. In particular, they’re far and away the leading seller of genetically modified seed. Roughly 40 percent of cropland in the United States is planted with crops that have patented Monsanto data in their eeny little genes.

They’re also drama magnets. They got straight-up busted for falsifying accounting data in 2016, and they’re under constant fire from folks who have a problem with genetically modified crops in general, since those are Monsanto’s large, seed-filled, faintly glowing bag.

That’s not the problem. The problem is they may be killing crops.

That brings us to the second name: dicamba. Dicamba is a weed killer, patented in 1967 and sold as Banvel, Diablo, Oracle and Vanquish, which I’m pretty sure were my first four WoW characters.

Obviously, dicamba isn’t new. What’s new is that Monsanto has formulated dicamba-resistant seed. That’s a big deal. The thing about plant killers is that they kill plants. As a rule, if you hose down your farm with a herbicide, you stop having a farm pretty quickly.

Monsanto is Monsanto because they changed that. They developed herbicide-resistant crops, specifically resistant to a plant killer called glyphosate.

You may have assaulted a dandelion or two with glyphosate yourself; it’s RoundUp. For decades, you could spray your fields with RoundUp and only the bad stuff would die. 80 flipping percent of American crops are grown from glyphosate-resistant seed, and Monsanto invented it.

Unfortunately, as a wise man once said while fleeing velociraptors, life… finds a way. Weeds are developing glyphosate resistance, or being displaced by species that already have it.

Monsanto needed to make lightning strike twice, and they chose dicamba. They engineered dicamba-resistant cotton and soybean seed and got it on the market, fast.

Then, crops started dying.

There’s no question that’s happening. According to a 2017 survey, 3.1 million acres of crops showed damage from drifting dicamba. The question is what’s causing it, and how (and whether) we can make it stop.

The problem is volatilization. Tl;dr on volatilization is that once administered, herbicides evaporate, forming clouds that move, condense and fall on other plants in unpredictable ways. Dicamba is infamously bad about that. Monsanto, as well as BASF and Du Pont, claimed to have formulated low-volatility versions that solved that problem.

Agriculture scientists and farmers alike have questioned those claims. Reports from multiple parts of the 26 million acres of land now planted with dicamba-resistant seed have described crop damage consistent with volatilization, the problem Monsanto et al said they’d fixed.

Monsanto’s argument is that the damage is just growing pains, the unavoidable consequences and human error that go with bringing a new product to market. The company claims that in 88 percent of cases investigated by Monsanto, the new herbicide had not been used in accordance with directions.

But scientists were able to replicate the effect in controlled conditions: a field sprayed according to Monsanto’s rules for low-volatility dicamba damaged an unsprayed field nearby, just by sharing the same air. According to those scientists, the patterns of crop damage also conflict with the Monsanto claim.

Monsanto is already fielding accusations of rushing or scamming scientific oversight on other products. Weed scientists are making similar accusations about dicamba-resistant seed. Whether that’s the case here or not has yet to be determined.

What is not in debate is that America’s most important industry is facing a serious problem. How – and whether – it gets fixed will have repercussions well beyond Monsanto’s market share.

Matt Salter is a writer and former fundraising and communications officer for nonprofit organizations, including Volunteers of America and PICO National Network. He’s excited to put his knowledge of fundraising, marketing, and all things digital to work for your reading enjoyment. When not writing about himself in the third person, Matt enjoys horror movies and tabletop gaming, and can usually be found somewhere in the DFW Metroplex with WiFi and a good all-day breakfast.

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So the Labor Department is cool with unpaid internships again

(BUSINESS NEWS) Regulations on unpaid internships continue to wax and wane, and businesses that opt to use unpaid labor should be aware of new regulations.

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Unpaid internships are a deacreasingly common institution in the United States, with help from former regulatory attempts to make them more difficult to create.

That regulatory oversight might become more relaxed after the Department of Labor (DOL) issued new rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that governs the role of unpaid internships in the modern American workforce.

Last week, the United States’ labor governing body decided to revise its guidelines on unpaid internships using the concept of a “primary beneficiary test.”

The core principle behind the seven statements that comprise the primary beneficiary test revolves around the idea that the reason you are hiring unpaid interns is for work that provides the intern with the primary benefit (educational opportunities, hands on learning, and networking), not because the company isn’t paying someone else to perform the same activities.

So with these guidelines, there’d be no more call for jokes about interns fetching coffee or making copies. Sounds like a win for the intern, right?

Not exactly.

The guidelines stress, however, that there is no magic quota of yes or no answers that yields the unpaid intern in question has job duties that would require payment. That even includes answering “no” to the statement that reads: “the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation.”

Of course, if a company were in violation of these guidelines, especially the one regarding compensation, it would be easier for adjudication to be brought against the company into a court of law. These rules start as the groundwork for any legal action interns can bring against an organization.

The first set of six guidelines were developed in 2010. By 2011, a lawsuit brought by unpaid interns against Fox Searchlight while working Darren Aronofsky feature, Black Swan, claiming the interns were performing job duties in need of compensation (read: they weren’t already paying employees to do the same roles, rather using interns as free labor).

The ruling in 2013 was in favor of the interns, but a different federal court reversed that decision in 2015. It is interesting to note that the revised guidelines published by the DOL only a week ago were derived from the Court’s 2015 decision on this case.

The larger trend of lawsuits brought by unpaid interns may cause a company pause if they reverse decisions about payment of employees.

Despite the judicial onslaught, some organizations may still choose to pursue unpaid internships in light of the relaxation of the guidelines by the DOL.

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Starbucks’ Teavana chain finally settles lawsuit with Simon Property Group

(BUSINESS NEWS) A bitter battle over store closures concludes with private settlement – and Teavana stores are still closing.

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A months-long legal fight between Starbucks’ Teavana and Simon Property Group, the number one mall operator in the U.S., has come to an end with a private settlement that reportedly allows the tea chain to move forward with some of its store closures.

In July 2017, Starbucks unveiled plans to close all 379 retail locations of its floundering Teavana stores.

Shortly thereafter, Simon Property Group got a local judge to bar Starbucks from closing the 77 Teavana locations in its malls, a peculiar legal move for this situation. Starbucks would be breaking its lease agreement with Simon, and Simon wasn’t going to stand for it.

Simon Property Group cited the ongoing financial plights traditional malls have experienced for years as more and more retailers shut their doors as its primary reason for blocking Starbuck’s actions. The difference with Teavana is that Starbucks isn’t under great financial stress and can actually afford to keep the stores open, per court documents.

Starbucks disagreed, but in November, a judge sided with Simon and ordered Starbucks to keep its Teavana stores open and not break dozens of leases nationally. Starbucks fought back with a December appeal, but the case moved up to Indiana’s highest court, bypassing the intermediate Court of Appeals.

And now, before Starbucks’ appeal could be heard, the dueling companies have apparently reached an undisclosed settlement, according to New York Post reports. Exact settlement details have not been revealed, but the Post has found at least two Teavana locations that are closing in just a few days, indicating that settlement may play out in Starbucks’ favor.

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Zillow sued for concealing Zestimates on certain listings

(BUSINESS NEWS) Zillow being sued for Zestimates is nothing new, but they’re now being accused of concealing Zestimates on “Co-Conspirator Broker” listings, violating federal Antitrust laws.

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From our real estate section, The Real Daily:

The latest Zillow legal troubles again surround their Zestimates; this time they are being sued for their Zestimates violating federal Antitrust laws. The company has allegedly violated and continue to violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1 and the New Jersey Antitrust Act, N.J.S.A. 56:9-3.

Plaintiff, EJ MGT LLC, based in New Jersey, filed suit again Zillow Group Inc. and Zillow Inc. today. In a 21-point legal brief outlining their specific violations, two things become immediately clear (assuming of course there is truth in these allegations): Zillow is giving preferential treatment to preferred brokerages (labeled ‘co-conspirator Broker[s] in the lawsuit) and Zestimates are wildly inaccurate (as many have adamantly stated since Zestimates’ conception).

The first few points of the brief explain exactly what Zillow is being accused of doing: “this antitrust action arises from Zillow’s conspiracy with certain real-estate brokerage companies to selectively conceal ‘Zestimates.’” Zillow’s estimate of a residential property’s “fair market value” which the lawsuit states they know “to be inaccurate,” have allowed “only select brokers to conceal the display of Zestimates on their listings to the exclusion of the general public.”

The lawsuit goes on to state that “these agreements between Zillow and certain co-conspirator brokers of residential real estate restrain trade (read: the agents/brokers being allowed to conceal unwanted Zestimates, henceforth referred to as ‘Co-conspirator Brokers’) and deprive Plaintiff and the public in general of the benefits of open and robust competition in two markets: the residential real estate market and the residential real estate brokerage market.”

In essence, Zillow and the Co-conspirators Brokers have made an illegal agreement regarding the display of Zestimates on Zillow’s site.

Zillow has long touted their Zestimates as a “user-friendly format to promote transparent real-estate markets and allow people to make informed decisions;” except Zestimates are often believed to be inaccurate and now they’re being concealed at the request of a select group of Co-conspirator Brokers – a far cry from making real estate more transparent.

If the lawsuit’s claims have any validity behind them, it seems as though Zillow may be in for a bumpy ride. Item 10 in the suit states, “Zillow has acknowledged that it conceals Zestimates as a result of agreements with only ‘certain brokers’ who receive ‘certain treatment’” and uses a message screenshotted from Zillow’s Help Center as proof these words were in fact used to explain why some listings had prominent Zestimates while others did not:

You may be wondering what brought about this lawsuit; it seems Plaintiff, EJ MGT LLC, owns and is marketing a property located in Cresskill, New Jersey, through an agent unaffiliated with Zillow (not a Co-Conspirator Broker). Therefore, their listing contains a prominently displayed Zestimate, while a similar listing in nearby Alpine, New Jersey, which is listed through a “Co-conspirator Broker,” conceals the Zestimate:

The above example is not the only one outlined in the case, however. Item 12 of the lawsuit states that further evidence can be seen by comparing a residence page for a property while it was listed with a Co-conspirator Broker versus the same residence page once the property was off the market. One clearly conceals the Zestimate, while the latter displays it clearly underneath the listing price.

For reference, the Co-conspirator Broker listing was screenshot on December 26, 2017 and the screenshot after it was taken off the market with the Zestimate was taken on January 2, 2018. Merely a week in between images, and yet the difference of how the ad is displayed is quite apparent:

In essence, Zillow has violated the very transparency they claimed to create.

Zillow is allegedly promoting misleading and inaccurate information while using their marketing power to charge brokers to hide this information which could negatively impact a sale, and which Zillow itself has acknowledged is sometimes inaccurate.

Also, general members of the public have no way to prevent Zillow from obtaining and posting information in this way, and it cannot be altered without hiring a Co-conspirator Broker, as Zillow has explicitly refused to offer the option to hide information to individual home owners, further deepening the dependency on Co-conspirator Brokers.

Because of their alleged refusal to treat everyone equally and “empower homebuyers with information,” they have potentially restrained trade in connection with the exchange of information regarding home valuation and offered anti-competitive benefits to only those brokers chosen to purchase that ‘special’ service package from Zillow that removes Zestimates from listings.

Therefore, brokers are not on even footing: when a seller attempts to price check; the brokers without it could be losing out to those who have the ‘special’ package and removal of Zestimates alongside listing prices.

So far, each individual Co-conspirator Broker has not been named; they have been named as a group: Sotheby’s International Realty, Inc., Coldwell Banker Real Estate LLC, Century 21 Real Estate LLC, The Corcoran Group ERA, and Weichert Realty, according to court documents. It is unlikely that any action would ever impact the brokerages, rather Zillow Group itself.

Zillow is being sued for five counts: two counts of conspiracy to restrain trade, one count of violating the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, one count of slander of title/product disparagement, and one count of interference with prospective economic advantage. A jury trial has been requested.

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