Like many farmers across southeastern Missouri and in states beyond, Steven and Dee Landers faced heavy crop damage last summer, losing nearly half of their yields and taking a financial hit that crept into six figures.
They think illegal use of the drift-prone herbicide dicamba is what afflicted their soybeans and corn. Now the couple near the tiny town of Lilbourn is spearheading a class action lawsuit against the biotech giant Monsanto, arguing that rampant herbicide drift was a predictable consequence of the company’s rollout of dicamba-tolerant crop varieties before the appropriate herbicide was approved for use.
The suit, filed Jan. 26 in U.S. District Court in Cape Girardeau, Mo., is open to farmers across 10 states where dicamba complaints have been documented, ranging from Texas to Minnesota and as far east as North Carolina.
But Missouri’s Bootheel area and surrounding regions have been at the epicenter of the crisis.
“The bulk of what was reported last year was in Missouri,” said Bev Randles, a lawyer at the Kansas City law firm, Randles & Splittgerber, representing plaintiffs in the case.
The suit states that there have been nearly 200 drift complaints in Missouri since Monsanto first released dicamba-resistant seeds in 2015. Randles identified Arkansas and Tennessee as the other areas where damage was most pronounced, with the case citing 45 drift complaints in Tennessee and 26 in Arkansas.
The form of dicamba Monsanto developed for use with the crops — which is supposedly less prone to vaporizing and drifting off target — was not approved by the EPA until November. Without it available for two growing seasons, the lawsuit argues it was inevitable that some farmers would turn to unauthorized forms of dicamba when faced with the “unenviable choice” of allowing their fields of dicamba-tolerant crops to be overrun by weeds, or to illegally spray older varieties that would not harm their own fields but jeopardize nearby growers who planted nonresistant seed.
Monsanto maintains that the company is not liable for the wrongdoing of others.
“This baseless lawsuit seeks an unprecedented expansion of the law by attempting to impose liability on a company that did not make the product that allegedly caused the damage, did not sell the product that allegedly caused the damage, and, in fact, warned against the very use of the product alleged in the complaint,” the company said in a statement.
Monsanto is facing a similar lawsuit filed in November on behalf of Bill Bader, a farmer who runs Missouri’s largest peach orchard near the Bootheel town of Campbell. He also is represented by Randles & Splittgerber, and his suit alleges that diminished harvests and peach tree damage from suspected drift have threatened to drive him out of business.