Dicamba drift—in which airborne pesticides float onto unprotected neighboring farms—just got its first big legal ruling.
Over the weekend, a federal jury in Missouri awarded a total of $265 million to Bader Farms, one of the largest peach farms in the state, penalizing Bayer AG, the newish owner of Monsanto.
If you’d like a full primer on dicamba, we’ve written an explainer on what’s going on, but here’s the brief story. Dicamba is a broad-spectrum (meaning, not very selective) herbicide, and not a particularly new one; it’s been around for decades, but was not, until around 2015, particularly common in large-scale agriculture. That was when Monsanto began selling dicamba-resistant seeds, namely soybean and cotton. Dicamba for this use case had not, at that point, been approved, but dicamba was not hard to find. So farmers that bought those new seeds simply sprayed the dicamba they could find.
It turned out that dicamba has a tendency to go airborne and drift onto neighboring fields, where it has very nasty effects on crops that don’t have protection built in. Monsanto and Bayer have insisted that user error is a major cause of dicamba drift.
Bader Farms sued Bayer for damages to their peach farm, which saw its harvest drop from 162,000 bushels in the early 2000s to 12,000 in 2018, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Much of Bader Farms’s argument had to do with Monsanto’s alleged negligence and unacted-upon knowledge of what might happen upon the release of those dicamba-treated seeds. Internal documents presented by the plaintiffs “included projections that thousands of farmers would complain about the system, internal emails that showed Monsanto denied academics the ability to test their products and a presentation that showed BASF’s sales of dicamba spiked in 2016,” writes Johnathan Hettinger at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
Bayer, for its part, argued that the evidence was inadequate to conclude that dicamba drift was the primary cause of Bader Farms’s problems. The jury disagreed, awarding Bader Farms $15 million in damages and $250 million in punitive damages. Bayer says it disagrees with the verdict and will appeal.