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Vilsack’s Dicamba Disaster: Reason #2 Senators Should Vote NO on Biden’s USDA Pick

Following up on “Back to the Future with Tom ‘Mr. Monsanto’ Vilsack,” this is the second installment in a series of articles we’re doing on President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If you haven’t already, please tell your U.S. Senators to vote NO on Vilsack.

In our last post, we listed the dozens of new genetically modified crops Vilsack pushed through the U.S.D.A. and cloned animals that he allowed to enter the market without review.

Today, we focus on Vilsack’s 2015 approval of dicamba-resistant cotton and soy. He knew these GMOs would unleash a raft of hellish herbicide drift incidents plaguing organic and conventional farmers alike. But, it was Monsanto's biggest product launch ever, supposedly a fix for the weed problems with Roundup Ready crops (resistant to glyphosate), so he turned a blind eye to the danger.

Dicamba is diabolical. Since the dawn of industrial agriculture, there has never been such an intense and prolonged period of crop losses due to pesticide damage, as that wrought by Vilsack's 2015 rubber stamping of Monsanto's dicamba-resistant GMOs. 

Dicamba has hit vegetable growers, vineyards, orchards and nurseries, as well as cotton and soy farmers, but the damage hasn’t been restricted to farms. Trees, native and ornamental plants, backyard gardens and natural areas are also suffering.

This is a grim legacy for a USDA Secretary who claimed to have wanted to “develop a sensible path forward for strengthening coexistence of all segments of agriculture in our country.”

Because Vilsack gave his rubber-stamp approval to Monsanto’s new GMO seeds before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reviewed the herbicides they were engineered to work with, farmers ended up using old versions of pesticides illegally, resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of acres of crops and more than $400 million, not to mention the environmental and public health disaster that has yet to be fully assessed.

This was all according to Monsanto’s plan. If Vilsack didn’t know that, he’s a fool. If he did, he’s a criminal.

Internal company documents examined by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting (“‘Buy it or else’: Inside Monsanto and BASF’s moves to force dicamba on farmers,” December 4, 2020) revealed that Monsanto and BASF knew that introduction of the new GMO seeds and the accompanying weed killer use would cause extensive crop damage. They let the disaster happen, knowing that many farmers would buy the new GMOs just to protect themselves from their neighbors.

“Get poisoned or get on board,” is how journalist Johnathan Hettinger sums up what he learned about the companies’ strategy.

Whether it was incompetence or complicity, Vilsack’s decision to push Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant GMOs onto the market―with no plan for how to deal with the pesticide problems he knew they’d cause―created a nightmare scenario that the courts, state regulators and individual farmers are still struggling to undo.

In June 2020, a federal court banned dicamba in response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety, along with the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Family Farm Coalition and the Pesticide Action Network.

In October 2020, the EPA trumped the court’s decision (pun intended) by granting dicamba five more years of use. This prompted plaintiffs to file a new lawsuit in December, since the EPA’s own data showed that the damage from the weed killer was even worse than previously known:

Between 2017-2019, there were as many as 140,000 separate instances of crop damage caused by dicamba. (There were 5,600 dicamba damage reports logged by Bayer, which now owns Monsanto, and BASF, but the EPA estimated that there were probably 25 times as many incidents, given most went unreported.) 

In 2018 alone, an estimated 4 percent of soybean farmers were affected. 

States are spending millions of dollars each year investigating complaints, forcing them to divert resources to the crisis from other regulatory priorities.

That’s according to a review of the newly released documents by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.  

The human health toll of the dicamba disaster is unknown. A 2020 study conducted by scientists at the National Institutes of Health, "Dicamba use & cancer incidence in the agricultural health study: an updated analysis," links dicamba to liver and intrahepatic bile duct cancers, acute and chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and mantle cell lymphoma. 

Vilsack did this.

It would be poetic justice for him to have to return to the mess he made, but he has proven himself to be either too corrupt or not smart enough to deal with it.

That’s why every U.S. Senator, but especially those from the states most impacted by dicamba damage, should vote NO on Biden’s attempt to put him back in charge of the USDA.

Take action: tell your U.S. Senators to vote NO on Tom “Mr. Monsanto” Vilsack.

Alexis Baden-Mayer is political director for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). To keep up with OCA’s news and alerts, sign up here.