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.