U.S. scientists to skip Monsanto dicamba summit

CHICAGO, Ill. (Reuters) —Monsanto invited dozens of weed scientists to a summit last week to win backing for a controversial herbicide, but many declined, threatening the company’s efforts to convince regulators the product is safe to use.

Monsanto faces a barrage of lawsuits over its dicamba herbicide and risks of tighter restrictions on its use after the chemical drifted away from where it was sprayed this summer and damaged nearby crops unable to tolerate it.

Arkansas and Missouri suffered the most complaints of U.S. states with damage linked to dicamba. Weed scientists from the two states declined to attend the summit on concerns about Monsanto’s response to the incident.

The company planned to present data at the summit that it says show user error was behind the damage, contrary to academics’ findings that dicamba products can vaporize and move off target under certain conditions in a process known as volatilization.

Missing will be Kevin Bradley, a University of Missouri plant sciences professor who has tracked the number of crop acres nationwide that have been hurt by dicamba sprayings. Bradley said he believed Monsanto was not willing to discuss volatilization.

“I think it’s best for me to stay away from that,” he said.

To prevent damage next year, states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are considering new rules for use, decisions to be based partly on advice from university weed scientists invited to the meeting, whether they attend or not.

Tighter restrictions could hurt sales of the herbicide or of Monsanto soybean seeds modified to resist the chemical, the company’s biggest ever biotech seed launch.

Last week, Arkansas moved just one step away from barring sprayings of dicamba next summer, setting the stage for a potential legal showdown with Monsanto.

Time is now of the essence as farmers start to make planting decisions for next spring.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has held calls with university weed experts to discuss potential regulations.

BASF SE, which also sells a dicamba-based weed killer, has invited scientists to its own meeting on the herbicide. The American Soybean Association, which represents farmers, is convening a meeting, too.

Monsanto’s summit, to be held near the company’s headquarters in St. Louis, was expected to be the largest meeting so far on dicamba, said Scott Partridge, the company’s vice-president of global strategy. At least half of about 60 invitees planned to attend and hear presentations from Monsanto and outside experts, he said.

Reuters contacted 10 scientists who were invited. Of these, three said they would attend and seven said they would not, for reasons including scheduling conflicts.

“We want them to challenge us and we intend to challenge those who are presenting data,” Partridge said.

Monsanto recently upset U.S. weed scientists by questioning the objectivity of two Arkansas experts, Jason Norsworthy and Ford Baldwin, who said dicamba had problems with volatilization. The specialists could be biased against the chemical because they were affiliated with Bayer AG, which sells a competing system to control weeds in soybeans, according to Monsanto.

Norsworthy, a University of Arkansas professor, has declined an invitation to speak about volatilization at Monsanto’s meeting, according to the university. Last year, the EPA cited his research on the best way to use dicamba when the agency approved the use of the chemical on crops that can resist it.

Two other University of Arkansas experts, Tom Barber and Bob Scott, will also not attend.

“With Monsanto questioning of the integrity of our science, we felt it was best not to participate,” university spokesperson Mary Hightower said.

Monsanto highlighted connections that Norsworthy and Baldwin had to Bayer to ensure that Arkansas fairly reviewed dicamba, Partridge said.

In July, Arkansas banned dicamba use for 120 days.

Monsanto’s critiques of experts follows past accusations by farmers and activists that the company improperly influenced science.

In March, farmers and others suing Monsanto claimed in court filings that Monsanto employees ghost wrote scientific reports that U.S. regulators relied on to determine that glyphosate, a chemical in its Roundup herbicide, did not cause cancer.

In 2015, the New York Times reported U.S. academics who received grants from Monsanto were used in lobbying and corporate public relations campaigns to defend the safety of genetically engineered food.

Monsanto would cover travel costs for academics who attended last week’s meeting, as is customary for the company, spokesperson Charla Lord said.

Among those attending were University of Tennessee weed scientist Tom Mueller, who said he planned to pay his own way and was skeptical Monsanto would engage in discussions.

“I think it’s just going to be a monologue,” he said.

Mueller said U.S. weed scientists had discussed skipping the meeting because they were upset Monsanto had criticized the Arkansas scientists.

“There’s some pretty strong sentiment that some states won’t send anybody,” he said.

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