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Monsanto Levels Criticism at Arkansas Weed Scientists

“Sad Day in Weed Science,” Says One Extension Weed Scientist

Monsanto has taken off the gloves in its effort to advance its dicamba-tolerant technology. Last week, the St. Louis-headquartered firm filed a petition with the Arkansas State Plant Board to halt what it calls an “unwarranted and misinformed ban” on dicamba in Arkansas.

Within that petition, they criticized the efforts of two well-known Arkansas weed scientists—Ford Baldwin and Jason Norsworthy. Baldwin is a retired University of Arkansas (U of A) Extension weed scientist who now does consulting work. Norsworthy is a U of A weed scientist. 

The petition is related to an August 7 directive that Governor Asa Hutchinson (R-AR) gave to the Arkansas agriculture secretary and plant board director to convene and cochair a dicamba task force to develop recommendations for future use of dicamba. The task force recommended that the Arkansas State Plant Board impose a flat ban on over-the-top use of all dicamba formulations after April 15 in 2018. (In 2017, only BASF’s Engenia formulation of dicamba marketed as lower in volatility than other dicamba forms was labeled for use in Arkansas) 

Monsanto officials disagree. In a letter last week to Hutchinson, Rob Fraley, who is Monsanto chief technology officer, urged Hutchinson to reject the recommendation. 

“While investigation of the 2017 reports is not complete, the available evidence establishes that Arkansas farmers can use new, low-volatility dicamba formulations safely and effectively to control resistant weeds,” he wrote in a letter released last week

Leveling the Criticism 

In the petition, Monsanto alleges that the dicamba task force did not consider the potential conflicts of interest that Monsanto says compromise the view of Baldwin. It says Baldwin spoke at the first dicamba task force meeting in support of a statewide ban on dicamba in 2018. Monsanto says Baldwin works as a paid consultant for Bayer CropScience, which now owns the competing Liberty Link technology that features soybeans that tolerate glufosinate (Liberty).  Monsanto officials also cited concerns about Baldwin being an expert witness for plaintiffs in a dicamba lawsuit against Monsanto. 

However, Baldwin stated in an email that he didn’t make that statement in support of a statewide dicamba ban in 2018 at dicamba task force meetings. He wrote that if Monsanto cannot show documentation either in audio or transcript form, it should retract the accusation.

Company spokespersons said a transcript of the meetings was not available. 

“Our petition relied on information provided to us by a person who was in attendance at the meeting who reported to us that Dr. Baldwin spoke in support of a ban in 2018,” wrote Samuel Murphey, a Monsanto spokesman in an email last Thursday. 

Monsanto officials also cite a passage in a September 6, 2017, Delta Farm Press article Baldwin wrote in which he said the “best current solution to stopping the off-target dicamba problems is to stop the in-season use and regroup.” 

Baldwin says Monsanto’s accusation is based on hearsay. “The only time I spoke at the first meeting was in response to a question from a member regarding what I had observed in my travels to the Midwest. The record will clearly show I made no effort to influence the task force in either meeting,” he wrote in an email. He says videos of both task force meetings are now public and clearly show he never made the statement.

Baldwin says the Delta Farm Press article was written after the task force decision. He does support the task force’s decision in that he says it is the only way to stop off-target movement in cotton and soybeans. However, he says that differs from Monsanto’s accusation.  

Land-Grant University Criticisms

Monsanto has also criticized Norsworthy’s research and data. In the Monsanto petition to the Arkansas plant board, Monsanto officials say Norsworthy publicly endorses a competing weed control technology – Liberty Link featuring glufosinate-tolerant technology for soybeans. 

“His glufosinate endorsements occurred both before and during the time that Dr. Norsworthy was supposed to be conducting an objective examination of dicamba,” the petition stated. 

It also said that Norsworthy provided a summary presentation – without substantial scientific data – at the first meeting of the Arkansas dicamba task force, advocating a complete statewide ban on dicamba in 2018. 

“Dr. Norsworthy’s endorsement of competing weed control technology for several years, combined with his outlier findings concerning XtendiMax, warrant skepticism of Norsworthy’s objectivity in this situation,” the petition stated. 

Not so, say University of Arkansas administrators. It’s backing Norsworthy. This is a statement by Mark Cochran, vice president of agriculture for the U of A Division of Agriculture:  

“First, and most importantly, we stand by the integrity of our scientists and their science, including Dr. Jason Norsworthy, our internationally recognized researcher and his work, and all our weed scientists, as well as other public weed scientists on record in other states. We are confident in the science that we’ve used to advise the regulatory process in Arkansas.

“Even Monsanto recognizes his (Norsworthy’s) reputation. Just 48 hours before the petition was filed, the company invited Dr. Norsworthy to present a summary of national drift and volatility research at an academic summit on dicamba that the company is hosting in St. Louis this month. He has declined this invitation.

“We will examine every point in this petition and its appearing and disappearing group of supporting exhibits, and over time will respond factually to its major points.

 “We have made our explanations available to the public, including at field days and through videos of the presentations that were and are still public on the Cooperative Extension Service site, Our public land grant research results are scientifically vetted and valid, and we are pledged to being transparent in our results.”

Bayer Crop Science — whose parent company is in the process of buying Monsanto – backs both Norsworthy and Baldwin with this statement: 

“We trust that a regulatory system based in sound science will allow growers to have access to the safe, effective tools they need in a way that allows all technologies to coexist. Doctors Baldwin and Norsworthy are two of the preeminent weed scientists in the country, and their voices along with other scientists are critical to ensuring sound science that supports the regulatory system. Their expertise, science and dedication to the Weed Science Society of America speaks for itself.”

What Monsanto Says 

“The criticism is not intended to be personal of Dr. Baldwin or Dr. Norsworthy,” says Scott Partridge, Monsanto vice president of global strategy. “Dr. Baldwin and Dr. Norsworthy are respected and have a long history in that state. As this process goes forward, it is critical, from our perspective, that the process not involve a predetermined conclusion or bias.”

Monsanto says testing for volatility on its XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology included testing in over 1,200 GLP (Good Laboratory Practices) studies over 25 geographies. (The Environmental Protection Agency’s Good Laboratory Practice Standards (GLPS) compliance monitoring program ensures the quality and integrity of test data submitted to the EPA.)

Monsanto officials say these studies showed consistent findings supporting low-volatility claims of Xtendimax with VaporGrip Techology between controlled environments and field studies in various geographies. 

“If we submit studies that have bias, they (EPA) will reject them out of hand,” says Partridge. “That is why we use GLP standards. The opinions expressed by Dr. Baldwin and Dr. Norsworthy are outliers with the tests we have done.”

In Norsworthy’s case, though, they’re consistent with studies done by other land-grant university weed scientists, said the U of A’s Cochran in a statement. 

“First, Norsworthy’s findings are anything but an outlier. It is consistent with research work in other states, including that of Kevin Bradley in Missouri, Tom Mueller and Larry Steckel in Tennessee, and elsewhere.  Second, none of our researchers has ever endorsed any product, but sometimes companies use our public comments and statements without our permission. Based on Monsanto’s allegations, we intend, under the terms of our agreements with Monsanto, to publish all data relevant to our dicamba work over the last few years. This petition isn’t just about a single herbicide, but it’s an attack on a whole profession – scientists whose careful work is meant to be of benefit to all.”

Sad Day in Weed Science

All this is disconcerting to Aaron Hager, a University of Illinois Extension weed specialist. He writes in an email:

“To me, it’s a sad day in weed science when the industry has reached a point where instead of debating data, they instead launch attacks on the credibility of public-sector weed scientists. It’s ironic that the company whose own credibility has been tarnished by these dicamba-related issues now appears to find it acceptable to attack the credibility of others with whom they disagree. 

“Perhaps Monsanto might consider that Dr. Norsworthy supports weed management programs based on the data he and other academic weed scientists generate. I’ve always believed that to be the job of public-sector weed scientists; to do the independent research and share that information with their constituents.  

“Now, I’m beginning to I wonder if Monsanto will label as noncredible other university weed scientists who recommend competitor products or programs. I’ve always believed my responsibility to Illinois farmers is to recommend those products or programs that, based on our data and data from my academic weed science colleagues, best meet the needs of Illinois farmers. If that is Monsanto’s criteria for not being credible, then they are more than free to label me as noncredible. I have been very proud to serve Illinois agriculture for over 24 years and always have do so as impartially, openly, and honestly as I could.”

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