The biggest, most valuable new technology on Midwestern farms these days is a new family of soybean seeds. But some farmers say they're buying these seeds partly out of fear.
A new lawsuit claims that the company Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, violated antitrust laws when it introduced the seeds. Bayer is asking the court to dismiss the complaint.
The seeds go by the trade name Xtend. They're worth an estimated billion dollars a year to Bayer.
Dennis Wentworth, a farmer in central Illinois, is totally onboard with the new product. "One hundred percent of the soybeans that we plant are Xtend soybeans," he says.
These new soybeans have been genetically tweaked so they don't die when sprayed with an herbicide called dicamba. This weedkiller has been around for decades, but it normally kills soybeans. Now, Wentworth can spray it right over his fields of dicamba-tolerant plants. "It controls the weeds," he says. "Kills the weeds. That's the bottom line. It doesn't affect the crop."
In just the past three years, Xtend soybeans have taken over 60 to 75 percent of the American soybean market.
Farmers say they made the switch because dicamba can kill weeds that other herbicides can't. Some farmers--and Bayer--also say these new seeds produce a bigger harvest.
But a lot of farmers say there's also a third reason.
"I just had to go along with the dicamba program whether I liked it or not," says Randy Brazel, who grows soybeans in southeastern Missouri and western Tennessee.
In early December, Brazel had already ordered his seeds for next year — but not the new Xtend soybeans. He was planning to use the same weedkillers he'd used in the past.
Then, in mid-December, he got a phone call. "I have a neighbor, a friend. He calls me and says, 'I am going to have to go dicamba,'" Brazel says.
That phone call changed Brazel's plans completely, because dicamba has a well-known problem. After being sprayed, it sometimes blows across property lines into neighbors' farms.
Lots of people have tried to stop this. Pesticide companies have reformulated the product. Government regulators have imposed restrictions on how and where farmers can spray it. All those rules are on the product's label. And still, dicamba fumes from fields of Xtend soybeans have curled up the leaves of sycamore trees and millions of acres of traditional soybeans across much of the Midwest and South.
Brazel wasn't willing to take the risk of that happening to his crops. He cancelled his entire order and bought the new dicamba-tolerant soybeans instead.
"Then I have to get on the phone and call every other neighbor and say,'Listen, I did not want to do this. But I am going to be forced to go dicamba.' Well, then that forces all those neighbors to call all their neighbors. And eventually what you have is a monopoly," he says.
Among the losers in this situation are seed companies that are sell competing products, like Rob-See-Co, in Elkhorn, Neb.
"We don't believe in Xtend," says Rob Robinson, CEO of Rob-See-Co. "It's too complicated. It's very difficult to meet the requirements on the label, and it causes too many issues with neighbors" because of conflicts over damaged crops.
Robinson says he's lost customers who've decided to plant those Xtend seeds. Most of them, he says, are buying this product at least partly to protect their crops from harm — because their neighbors are spraying dicamba. He says it's part of the sales pitch for these new seeds.
"At least on a local basis, they're being sold with this idea. It's actively part of the sales process," he says. Seed companies will remind farmers that if they plant Xtend soybeans, they won't see any damage from dicamba, so they won't have those fights with neighbors. "Now, how far that goes up the management chain with Monsanto, now Bayer, I can't tell you, but I know that locally, that's the message," he says.
Several law firms now have filed a lawsuit on behalf of farmers against Monsanto, arguing that the company violated antitrust law by selling dicamba-tolerant seeds. The lawsuit claims that the company understood that the risk of drifting dicamba could drive competitors out of the market.
Bayer, which now owns Monsanto, has asked the court to dismiss that lawsuit; a decision is pending.
Bayer declined NPR's request for an interview about this issue. In its public statements, and as it has told NPR in the past, the company insists that if dicamba is used properly, according to all the rules, it will cause no harm to any neighbors. The company also says that farmers are buying Xtend seeds solely because they offer better weed control and higher yields.
It also points out that reports of damage from drifting dicamba were down sharply last year after the company and other organizations held hundreds of training sessions for farmers.
The company's critics, though, say fewer crops are getting damaged in part because so many farmers have decided to buy Bayer's product: crops that dicamba can't harm.