Missouri issues first fines over misuse of farm chemical in 2016

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Missouri has issued its first fines over the misuse of a farm chemical in 2016 that went on to be linked in different formulations to widespread U.S. crop damage this year, the state said on Thursday.

Authorities fined eight people a total of $145,125 for improperly spraying the chemical known as dicamba, used to kill weeds, in what Missouri called “the first wave of civil penalties issued to applicators,” according to a statement.

The delay between sprayings last year and the state’s action shows how a long process of investigating many complaints about dicamba use is straining resources in farm states.

The United States has faced an agricultural crisis this year caused by the new formulations of dicamba-based herbicides, which farmers and weed experts say have harmed crops that cannot resist the chemical because it evaporates and drifts away from where it is applied.

Monsanto and BASF say the herbicides are safe when used properly.

Last year, farmers sprayed dicamba illegally in states including Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas on soybeans that Monsanto Co engineered to resist new versions of the chemical, according to regulators and weed scientists.

Monsanto sold the GMO soybean seeds for planting in spring 2016 before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the autumn approved use of the new versions of the herbicides, made by Monsanto and BASF SE. The herbicides are designed to be sprayed on the soybeans during the summer growing season and not drift away.

That delay left farmers who bought the seeds with no matching herbicide for use in summer 2016 and three bad alternatives: hire workers to pull weeds, use a less-effective herbicide called glyphosate, or illegally spray an older version of dicamba at the risk of damage to nearby farms.

A resulting rash of illegal spraying that year damaged 42,000 acres of crops in Missouri, among the hardest hit areas, as well as swaths of crops in nine other states, according to an August 2016 advisory from the EPA.

Monsanto, which is being acquired by Bayer AG for $63.5 billion, has blamed farmers for the illegal spraying in 2016. The company has said it could not have foreseen that the delayed approval of the new dicamba herbicides would result in damaged crops.

This year, damage related to dicamba herbicides covered 3.6 million acres in 25 states, according to University of Missouri data. Several states have imposed new restrictions on dicamba use for 2018 to avoid a repeat of the damage.

Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Chris Reese