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A Drift-Prone Weedkiller Still Damages Crops And Trees, Despite Attempts To Stop It

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A controversial weedkiller called dicamba has divided rural communities and led to lawsuits over damage to orchards and vegetable crops. The chemical's main sponsor, the company Bayer, has promised to fix the problem. Now the billionaire founder of a top seed company is accusing Bayer of misleading people about the damage. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: For the past five years, a mysterious malady has afflicted soybean fields, orchards and trees from North Dakota to Mississippi. Jackie Johnson, who runs a nursery for trees and flowers in DeWitt, Ark., says one symptom is deformed leaves on post oaks.

JACKIE JOHNSON: We had been seeing a lot of cupping of the leaves that we thought maybe was an oak gall or something, but it's not. It's hit from dicamba.

CHARLES: Dicamba's an herbicide. It's been around for decades, but some farmers are spraying a lot more of it now on new varieties of soybeans and cotton that have been genetically modified to tolerate this chemical. The problem is dicamba vapor has been spreading from those fields and drifting across the landscape, curling up leaves on tomato plants, crippling vineyards.

JOHNSON: It's like a thief breaking into your house. You have no control over it. But the most horrible thing is you have no recourse because you cannot prove where that dicamba came from.

CHARLES: The damage is most prevalent on soybeans that have not been genetically modified to tolerate dicamba. And a weed specialist at Iowa State University, Prashant Jha, says about a third of those vulnerable soybeans in his state are showing signs of dicamba exposure this year - cupped leaves, stunted growth.

PRASHANT JHA: There is a lot of angst and frustration among the growers.

CHARLES: Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, invented these dicamba-tolerant crops. It's promised to solve the problem with more training for farmers on how to spray dicamba properly, a new chemical formula for the herbicide to keep it from evaporating. The Environmental Protection Agency put out new rules last year for how and when to spray it. But Jha says dicamba just keeps drifting.

JHA: How many times I have to write an article? How many times I have to give a talk saying the same thing over and over?

CHARLES: A week ago, though, a new dicamba critic emerged - Harry Stine, the billionaire founder of Stine Seed - according to Forbes magazine, the richest man in Iowa.

HARRY STINE: Hundreds of thousands of our plots are damaged each year.

CHARLES: Stine says he held his tongue for years.

STINE: I kept thinking that somewhere, somehow this dicamba nightmare would get straightened out.

CHARLES: Also, he has a profitable relationship with Bayer. He says the company used some of his varieties when it created those dicamba-tolerant soybeans. But on July 17, Stine sent an email to top executives at Bayer - also government regulators - saying, dicamba has caused more damage to American agriculture than anything I've witnessed in my lifetime, and I am old, he added with a smiley face. Stine says he actually could have lived with the damage to his company's soybean research plots. What he says he couldn't tolerate was some of Bayer's dealers and salespeople lying about what caused it.

STINE: When they put out all these false stories that the damage was due to environmental concerns, the damage was due to bad genes and some of our genetics, that's what pushed me over the edge.

CHARLES: Prashant Jha at Iowa State University says he's also frustrated by false theories spread on social media, blaming dicamba damage on other causes. Bayer, in a statement, didn't directly address Stine's complaints. The company says it takes reports of dicamba damage seriously and is committed to investigating them. It also says it stands behind its dicamba-based herbicide. The EPA, for its part, says it's trying to collect accurate data on dicamba damage. And if its current regulations aren't doing enough, it can take further action.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "LOOPED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.