Monsanto Fights Back Against Arkansas Dicamba Regulation : The Salt In Arkansas, a regulatory committee of farmers and small-business owners banned the latest weed-killing technology from the giant agrichemical company. Monsanto is taking them to court.

These Citizen-Regulators In Arkansas Defied Monsanto. Now They're Under Attack

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In the state of Arkansas, there's a kind of David versus Goliath battle underway, a battle over a weed killer. On one side, there's the giant company known as Monsanto, on the other, a group of farmers and business-owners who regulate the use of pesticides in the state. They have banned Monsanto's latest way of killing weeds, and the company is fighting back. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Terry Fuller never intended to pick a fight with a billion-dollar company.

TERRY FULLER: I didn't feel like I was leading the charge. I felt like I was just trying to do my duty.

CHARLES: Terry and his identical twin, Jerry, grow soybeans and raise cattle near Poplar Grove in eastern Arkansas. But a big part of their business is selling soybean seeds to other farmers.

FULLER: These are our beans that are for sale.

CHARLES: Here in a storage shed, he shows me the product that has turned neighbors against each other, provoked that fight with Monsanto. That product...

FULLER: 7478XTS. So that is an Xtend soybean variety right there.

CHARLES: That's dicamba-tolerant.

FULLER: That's dicamba-tolerant.

CHARLES: Dicamba is a herbicide. It kills what farmers call broadleaf plants, including lots of weeds. The Monsanto Company tweaked the genes of these soybean varieties, and now dicamba doesn't bother them at all. It means that farmers can plant these seeds, spray dicamba on their fields as the soybeans grow, and the weeds will die, and the crops are fine. When Fuller heard about this invention a few years ago, he thought it was great.

FULLER: I absolutely wanted to spray dicamba in Arkansas and the rest of the nation.

CHARLES: Last summer, farmers started spraying dicamba on their crops. And they say it worked. The problem was when the weather turned hot, the weed killer didn't stay where it was supposed to. It seems to have evaporated and drifted sometimes for a mile or more into fields of other crops. Dicamba fumes left those crops stunted or with curled-up leaves.

FULLER: I could not walk out of my house without seeing damage.

CHARLES: Dicamba hurt fields of soybeans that couldn't tolerate the chemical, backyard tomatoes, orchards, millions of acres of crops from Mississippi to Minnesota. It was a fiasco. And Terry Fuller had the power to stop it, at least in his state. He's a member of the Arkansas State Plant Board, which regulates pesticides and seeds.

FULLER: I'm charged with protecting the citizens of the state of Arkansas. And it appears that I wasn't doing a very good job of protecting the citizens and can't protect myself.

CHARLES: Even trees in his own yard were damaged. The Arkansas State Plant Board's an unusual institution. It meets in public. The members sit around a big table - farmers, seed dealers from small towns across the state, a few people who work for big chemical companies but no lawyers, no politicians. All of them volunteer their time. And they're proudly independent.

RAY VESTER: Self-governing by the people for the people.

CHARLES: This is Ray Vester, a rice farmer who served on the board for 18 years until last year. He says the plant board is the best system of regulation he's ever seen.

VESTER: Every other state - their boards are politically appointed by the party in power.

CHARLES: Now, Monsanto says dicamba can be used safely with better training. And in most other states, regulators looked at this question behind closed doors and decided, OK, farmers can keep using dicamba with some additional restrictions. In Arkansas, though, the debate was very public. Through the fall, the plant board argued about it around that meeting table. And anybody with an opinion could drive over to Fuller Seed and Supply in Poplar Grove.

FULLER: We had as many as 15 people at the office before 7 o'clock in the morning all waiting to see me all on one side of the issue or the other.

CHARLES: In the end, the board decided that dicamba could not be controlled, so spraying would not be allowed during the entire growing season from April 15 through October. These are the toughest restrictions in the whole country. And the board is now under attack. Monsanto sued the board and each member individually, calling their decision arbitrary, capricious and unlawful. Hundreds of farmers signed a petition saying they need dicamba. Michael McCarty was one of them.

MICHAEL MCCARTY: We got angry. We didn't feel like we were able to be heard.

CHARLES: They wanted the board to allow spraying at least during the first part of the growing season when the weather's not so hot and dicamba isn't so prone to drift. McCarty and five other farmers also sued the board.

MCCARTY: It gets very emotional. We like seeing our fields clean. We like them to be weed-free.

CHARLES: There's a chance the plant board may not even survive in its current form. There have been proposals in Arkansas' legislature to move the board inside the Department of Agriculture, make it less independent. Terry Fuller says he doesn't think he's lost any friends over this controversy, but there are some pretty angry people out there.

FULLER: There's two loaded guns in my office (laughter). I felt personally threatened somewhat.

CHARLES: He doesn't regret his vote to stop dicamba-spraying, though. He says he's just trying to protect the citizens of Arkansas. Dan Charles, NPR News.


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