Republicans and the Supreme Court are peeling away voting rights and undermining representative government. Grassroots organizing is the only way to preserve U.S. democracy.
Republicans and the Supreme Court are peeling away voting rights and undermining representative government. Grassroots organizing is the only way to preserve U.S. democracy.
Tackling inflation requires reining in private markets—and embracing economic democracy.
The president’s budget calls for $50.9 billion in nuclear weapons spending.
In an industry plagued with poverty pay, job insecurity and deceptive recruitment practices, temp workers have scant protections.
Fire in the West is expected, and not so long ago, it seemed something the West experienced more than anywhere else. Nationally, big fires were treated as another freak of Western violence, like a grizzly bear attack, or another California quirk like Esalen and avocados.
Now the wildland fires flare up everywhere. There are fires in Algeria and Turkey, Amazonia and Indonesia, and France, Canada and Australia. Last year even Greenland burned.
Fire seasons have lengthened, fires have gotten meaner and bigger; fires have begun not just gorging on logging slash and prowling the mountainous backcountry, but also burning right into and across towns. Three years ago in northern California, the Camp Fire broke out along the Feather River and, burning southwest, incinerated the town of Paradise. Now, the Dixie Fire, starting 20 miles north in the same drainage, is burning in the opposite direction, taking out the historic town of Greenville. The fires have us coming and going.
The causes have been analyzed and reanalyzed, like placer miners washing and rewashing tailings. Likewise, the solutions have been reworked and polished until they have become clichés, ready to spill into the culture wars.
The news media have fire season branded into their almanac of annual events. Scientific disciplines are publishing reports and data sets at an exponential rate. So far as understanding the fire scene, we’ve hit field capacity. What more can we say?
One trend is to go small and find meaning in the personal. But there is also an argument to go big and frame the story at a planetary scale that can shuffle all the survival memoirs, smoke palls that travel across the continent, melting ice packs, lost and disappearing species, and sprawling frontiers of flame, in much the way we organize the swarm of starlight in a night sky into constellations.
I’m a fire guy. I take fire not just as a random happening, but as an emergent property that’s intrinsic to life on Earth.
So I expect fires. All those savanna fires in Africa, the land-clearing fires in Brazil and Sumatra, the boreal blowouts in Siberia and British Columbia, the megafires in the Pacific Northwest—all the flames we see.
But then there are fires that should be present and aren’t—the fires that once renewed and stabilized most of the land all over our planet. These are the fires that humanity, with its species monopoly on combustion, deliberately set to make living landscapes into what the ancients termed “a second nature.”
But it was not enough. We wanted yet more power without the constraints of living landscapes that restricted what and when we could burn. We turned to fossil fuels to burn through day and night, winter and summer, drought and deluge. With our unbounded firepower we remade second nature into “a third nature,” one organized around industrial combustion.
Our fires in living landscapes and those made with fossil fuels have been reshaping the Earth. The result is too much bad fire and too little good, and way too much combustion overall.
Add up all those varieties of burning, and we seem to be creating the fire equivalent of an ice age, with continental shifts in geography, radical changes in climate, rising sea level, a mass extinction, and a planet whose air, water, soil and life are being refashioned at a breakneck pace.
It’s said that every model fails but some are useful. The same holds true for metaphors. What the concept of a planetary Fire Age — a Pyrocene — gives us, is a sense of the scale of our fire-powered impact. It suggests how the parts might interact and who is responsible. It allows us to reimagine the issues and perhaps stand outside our entrenched perspectives.
What we have made—if with unintended consequences—we can unmake, though we should expect more unknown consequences.
We have a lot of fire in our future, and a lot to learn about living with it.
Over the past couple years, the Vermont State AFL-CIO and its membership have embraced a more democratic, rank-and-file strategy, building up bonds of solidarity with community organizations, and bringing much-needed energy into a labor council that was on the verge of dying. Instead of commending and encouraging these efforts, however, the AFL-CIO national and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka are monitoring, investigating, and threatening “further action” against the Vermont labor council. Why? We talk with David Van Deusen, president of the Vermont State Labor Council, AFL-CIO.
There are two basic ways to interpret economic news. One is the academic way, in which every development is weighed and scrutinized and plugged into various models in a more or less genuine attempt to intuit what is happening in the chaotic complex system we call “the economy.” This is what honest economists do, and sometimes they develop new theories that end up causing enormous shifts in global history, many years downstream. This is not the kind of economics we are talking about now, in 2021.
The other way of approaching economics is the political way, in which each new piece of economic data is hammered and squeezed and molded into a form that serves a preexisting political agenda. This is economics as an instrument to serve politics, not vice versa. This is, unfortunately, the way that most people experience “the economy”: not as something to be understood, but as something to be either squeezed for all its worth, or something that is squeezing you for all you’re worth. Karl Marx and Adam Smith may have been honest economists in the first category, but most of their disciples in governments have been firmly in the second.
It is important to understand this distinction when we discuss economics, lest the discussion go off in two different directions. While academic economists and journalists peer at the past year’s bizarre economic contortions—a historic collapse followed rapidly by a historic government-fueled rebound leading to an uncertain future—and conclude (honestly) that they don’t really know what’s happening, political actors are already sharpening their knives to go to war over what happens next.
In terms of political economy, the question now is whether we are poised to enact a new New Deal—a huge increase in government-funded social spending to finally try to turn the tide on inequality that has been building for more than 40 years—or whether we are instead poised to swing back towards austerity, a brutal budget-balancing to “make up for” the large spending bills enacted during the past year’s lockdowns. Despite the fact that the trillions of dollars the government spent in several relief bills has successfully staved off what would have been another Great Depression (and has caused a boom in financial asset prices that is making rich people richer), the institutional preference of the Republican Party is, always, for austerity. The political case for austerity is going to be made no matter what. And inflation is going to be the primary tool used to make it. The honesty of this analysis is beside the point.
Along with the contentions “raising the minimum wage destroys jobs” and “raising taxes hurts the economy” canards, a key part of the right wing economic gospel is that increasing government spending is bad because it leads to dangerous levels of inflation. Never mind the fact that right-wing economists have been steadily predicting this outcome since the recovery from the 2008 recession, and it has never come true. They will continue to predict it.
Now, inflation is actually here. Never mind the fact that the Fed believes that inflation can be kept under control, and that more government spending is in order—all popular media coverage of inflation occurs in the frame of fear. A little evidence of inflation combined with a lot of fear of inflation will be the formula for turning inflation into a political weapon in service of austerity.
You should get ready to hear two primary messages. The first, with each passing month of inflation, will be: “OUT OF CONTROL government spending is causing inflation that will EAT UP YOUR SAVINGS and cause prices to SPIRAL OUT OF CONTROL and we must immediately STOP all new spending and also CUT ENTITLEMENTS.” In this way, longstanding Republican priorities—namely, cutting government spending on everyone except the rich—will be shoehorned into a prescription for today’s (mostly imaginary) problems, without mentioning that the GOP was pushing the same prescription a decade ago when the problems were the opposite.
The second message you will hear, which may be a bit subtler, will be: “This is caused by Modern Monetary Theory, a wacky theory that Democrats embrace, and all this inflation proves that the theory is a failure.” Political speech is about caricatures. The caricature of MMT is: “These fools think the government can print as much money as it wants with no consequences, but we all know that that will cause runaway inflation.” If you know a little about MMT, you may object to this characterization by understanding that, in fact, MMT specifically focuses on inflation as the signal to tell us how much the government can spend. That doesn’t matter. It is too nuanced for the caricature, and in politics, the caricature can become far more important than the reality.
What percentage of Republicans who hold strong opinions on “Critical Race Theory” do you think have actually studied critical race theory outside of the caricature? Exactly.
It will only take a shift of a single seat in the Senate and a small handful of seats in the House to make the idiotic Republican economic caricatures into the reigning economic orthodoxy of the United States Congress. At that point, the opportunity for transformative change is finished. And even if Republicans don’t manage to win back control of Congress in the midterms, there is the danger that the caricature becomes influential enough to scare Democrats back into the deficit-fearing hole where they have spent most of the past half century.
Every last thing happening right now counsels strong, fast action. Get the money out the door now or risk losing any chance at major debt-fueled government spending programs in the foreseeable future. That means the obliteration of any hope for turning around the rise in economic inequality, the single most damaging trend in America in my lifetime.
Most Americans are economically illiterate. This is not an insult to them. It is just an observation of fact, and the completely predictable outcome of our nation’s unwillingness to engage in any widespread form of economic education that is not soaked in free market jingoism. For political purposes, nobody knows what MMT is. But they do know enough to fear inflation, because inflation makes stuff cost more, and nobody likes that. Therefore the weaponized rhetorical power of inflation will tend to overwhelm whatever it is being deployed against. And we know that it will be deployed with full force against the possibility that the American welfare state could be permanently expanded. That always makes rich people scared that they’ll have higher taxes, and therefore they will wage war against it.
We are now in a race to give people new government benefits before they get tricked out of wanting them. Every month that inflation ticks up, the lies will get louder, and the task will get harder. Spend the fucking money now. There is no time to waste.
For four decades, the basic deal between big American corporations and politicians has been simple. Corporations provide campaign funds. Politicians reciprocate by lowering corporate taxes and doing whatever else corporations need to boost profits.
The deal has proven beneficial to both sides, although not to the American public. Campaign spending has soared while corporate taxes have shriveled.
In the 1950s, corporations accounted for about 40 percent of federal revenue. Today, they contribute a meager 7 percent. Last year, more than 50 of the largest U.S. companies paid no federal income taxes at all. Many haven’t paid taxes for years.
Both parties have been in on this deal although the GOP has been the bigger player. Yet since Donald Trump issued his big lie about the fraudulence of the 2020 election, corporate America has had a few qualms about its deal with the GOP.
After the storming of the Capitol, dozens of giant corporations said they would no longer donate to the 147 Republican members of Congress who objected to the certification of Biden electors on the basis of the big lie.
Then came the GOP’s recent wave of restrictive state voting laws, premised on the same big lie. Georgia’s are among the most egregious. The chief executive of Coca Cola, headquartered in the peach tree state, calls those laws “wrong” and “a step backward.” The CEO of Delta Airlines, Georgia’s largest employer, says they’re “unacceptable.” Major League Baseball decided to relocate its annual All-Star Game away from the home of the Atlanta Braves.
These criticisms have unleashed a rare firestorm of anti-corporate Republican indignation. The senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, warns corporations of unspecified “serious consequences” for speaking out. Republicans are moving to revoke Major League Baseball’s antitrust status. Georgia Republicans threaten to punish Delta Airlines by repealing a state tax credit for jet fuel.
“Why are we still listening to these woke corporate hypocrites on taxes, regulations & antitrust?” asks Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Why? For the same reason Willy Sutton gave when asked why he robbed banks: That’s where the money is.
McConnell told reporters that corporations should “stay out of politics” but then qualified his remark: “I’m not talking about political contributions.” Of course not. Republicans have long championed “corporate speech” when it comes in the form of campaign cash – just not as criticism.
Talk about hypocrisy. McConnell was the top recipient of corporate money in the 2020 election cycle and has a long history of battling attempts to limit it. In 2010, he hailed the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling, which struck down limits on corporate political donations, on the dubious grounds that corporations are “people” under the First Amendment to the Constitution.
“For too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process,” McConnell said at the time. Hint: He wasn’t referring to poor Black people.
It’s hypocrisy squared. The growing tsunami of corporate campaign money suppresses votes indirectly by drowning out all other voices. Republicans are in the grotesque position of calling on corporations to continue bribing politicians as long as they don’t criticize Republicans for suppressing votes directly.
The hypocrisy flows in the other direction as well. The Delta’s CEO criticized GOP voter suppression but the company continues to bankroll Republicans. Its PAC contributed $1,725,956 in the 2020 election, more than $1 million of which went to federal candidates, mostly to Republicans. Oh, and Delta hasn’t paid federal taxes for years.
Don’t let the spat fool you. The basic deal between the GOP and corporate America is still very much alive.
Which is why, despite record-low corporate taxes, congressional Republicans are feigning outrage at Joe Biden’s plan to have corporations pay for his $2 trillion infrastructure proposal. Biden isn’t even seeking to raise the corporate tax rate as high as it was before the Trump tax cut, yet not a single Republicans will support it.
A few Democrats, such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, don’t want to raise corporate taxes as high as Biden does, either. Yet almost two-thirds of Americans support the idea.
The basic deal between American corporations and American politicians has been a terrible deal for America. Which is why a piece of legislation entitled the “For the People Act,” passed by the House and co-sponsored in the Senate by every Democratic senator except Manchin, is so important. It would both stop states from suppressing votes and also move the country toward public financing of elections, thereby reducing politicians’ dependence on corporate cash.
Corporations can and should bankroll much of what America needs. But they won’t as long as corporations keep bankrolling American politicians.
This post first appeared on robertreich.org.
President Donald Trump was impeached for inciting a mob to violently overturn the 2020 election. He failed. Now, Republican officials across the country are openly radicalizing against democracy by attempting to codify Trump’s efforts.
In dozens of states, with little media scrutiny or public debate, the GOP is introducing bills with the express intent of rigging elections, disempowering voters and setting itself up for minority rule. And given how creaky our political institutions have become, the GOP is well on its way to stealing the next election—and perhaps every one after that.
This effort is perhaps an even greater emergency than Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election results. Unless social movements pressure Democrats to act now, both could be locked out of power for generations to come.
Republicans are accelerating their crackdown on voters
The Republican Party has been rolling back voting rights at a state level for years, but those efforts have accelerated since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act
in 2013. Following that decision, Republican-controlled states have enacted wave after wave of strict voter ID laws, closed thousands of polling sites, and as one federal judge put it, targeted voters of color with “almost surgical precision.”
Trump’s war on the 2020 election supercharged this process. Since November, the Brennan Center for Justice calculates that Republican lawmakers in 33 states have introduced at least 165 new bills to curtail voting rights in dozens of states.
In Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona, where Biden narrowly beat Trump on the strength of absentee ballots, the GOP has moved to end no-excuse absentee voting altogether. Republicans in these and many other states are also demanding more stringent voter ID and signature matching, even though evidence of voter fraud is virtually non-existent.
Because historic mobilizations allowed Democrats to recapture the Senate, Georgia Republicans have systematically targeted Black voters, as Ari Berman reports in a crucial new feature for Mother Jones. In a state that already had 10- and 11-hour lines to vote in Black precincts, lawmakers are seeking to greatly restrict early voting—measures that include closing polls on the Sundays before elections, days many Black churches lead get-out-the-vote drives.
As Common Cause Georgia Director Aunna Dennis tells Berman, “This bill is Jim Crow with a suit and tie.”
The Electoral College makes voter suppression much more effective
President Joe Biden won 7 million more votes than Trump in 2020, but Biden’s real margin of victory was much, much narrower. Why? Because the popular vote doesn’t decide presidential elections—the Electoral College does. And most states award their entire slate of electoral votes to whichever candidate comes out ahead, no matter the margin.
The way these votes are counted privileges smaller, whiter and predominantly Republican-leaning states. A vote in lightly populated Wyoming, for instance, carries far more weight than a vote in densely populated California. Meanwhile, a razor-thin victory in swing states like Wisconsin or Pennsylvania means the losing candidate walks away with nothing.
Over the past three decades, this system has overwhelmingly favored Republicans, who have held the White House for 14 years despite winning the popular vote only once. But even these numbers understate the Democrats’ structural disadvantage. Biden’s 7 million-vote victory in 2020 won him no more electoral votes than Trump’s popular vote defeat of 3 million in 2016.
Just over 40,000 votes in Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia determined the 2020 election. With margins this narrow, voter suppression in even a few states can have a massive impact.
Some Republicans want to toss out election results altogether
Republican authoritarianism goes well beyond voter suppression. When the GOP lost gubernatorial races in North Carolina in 2016, and Wisconsin and Michigan in 2018, state officials used gerrymandered majorities to strip newly elected Democrats of their powers.
In other cases, Republicans used these rigged majorities to undermine or overturn voter-decided election reforms, such as enfranchising former convicts in Florida and redrawing legislative districts in Michigan. Now, after losing the White House in 2020, the GOP is growing increasingly brazen.
In states like Wisconsin, GOP lawmakers want to split state’s electoral votes by congressional districts, which have been drawn in their favor. That means that, even if Biden were to win Wisconsin again in 2024, he might lose several electoral votes to the Republican candidate. At the same time, GOP lawmakers are pushing to abandon this system in Nebraska—because Biden won a single electoral vote there in 2020.
Perhaps most outrageously, one Arizona bill would let Republican state lawmakers throw out the popular vote altogether and cast the state’s presidential votes themselves. In Pennsylvania, where judges rejected a Republican effort to toss Biden’s 2020 state victory, lawmakers in a gerrymandered GOP legislature are pushing for more control over judge appointments—a clear sign they hope to try again with a friendlier court.
Similar types of bills are likely to surface in more states. Should these bills pass, Republicans could lose the same states they lost in 2020 and win in 2024.
Republicans are already absurdly overrepresented in Washington
How could Biden or another Democrat overcome these handicaps? They would need to run up even bigger popular vote margins and win even more states. To do that, they would have to rebuild the base of their party by increasing union membership and creating a pathway to citizenship for immigrants.
Ending the pandemic, raising wages and improving healthcare would improve the standing of the Democratic Party. But even good governance may not be enough to reverse the country’s anti-democratic trendlines.
Consider the Senate, where 50 Democrats represent 40 million more people than the 50 Republicans. Thanks to the arcane filibuster, it takes just 41 of those Republicans—representing just over 20% of the U.S. population—to block Democrats from passing most legislation.
Republican Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) spent weeks blocking newly elected Democrats from their committee seats, and there’s every indication he will use the same tactic to quash new laws regulating everything from labor conditions to carbon emissions.
On the House side, a fresh round of gerrymandering this year could put that chamber out of reach for Democrats
even if they earn millions more votes nationally than the GOP. Democrats currently hold a nine-seat advantage, but Republicans will get to redraw at least 188 districts this year. Many are in vote-rich states like Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, all of which have long histories of voter suppression.
It’s not difficult to envision McConnell and company easily blocking Biden’s agenda and Republicans retaking the House, Senate and White House in the next two election cycles. And thanks to gerrymandered state legislatures and Trump’s packing of the federal courts, the GOP could be well on its way to near-permanent minority rule.
Eliminate the filibuster. Expand voting. Curb gerrymandering. Add new states
We may not be able to change the Republican Party, but we can change the political institutions it has deftly exploited.
Ideally, we’d toss out the Electoral College and restructure the Senate. Both have their constitutional roots in compromises designed to protect slaveholders, and both have warped our democracy. But amending the Constitution would require votes from the GOP, the very party that’s currently gaming the system.
So what to do?
An obvious first step is to eliminate the filibuster, which is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. With a simple majority vote (plus Vice President Kamala Harris), Senate Democrats could set a new Senate precedent.
The demand to end the filibuster is growing in popularity among progressive groups, 60 of which recently wrote
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), calling on him to scrap it. The only obstacle may be the Senate Democrats themselves.
While progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) now support ending the legislative procedure, more conservative Senators like Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) have vowed to oppose such efforts (although the latter recently expressed an openness to filibuster reform.)
Biden is also said to be reluctant to end the filibuster.
Democrats might, then, consider weakening the filibuster, without eliminating it. As it stands, 60 votes are required to stop a filibuster; this number could simply be reduced. Or, perhaps the filibuster could be suspended for votes on expanding voting rights or admitting new states. Senators already can’t filibuster court nominees or budget reconciliations (such as the most recent Covid-19 relief package), so there is plenty of precedent for this move.
With the filibuster gone or limited, the next priority must be passing the For the People Act.
Modeled after legislation the House approved in 2019, the For the People Act would greatly modernize voter registration, restrict the voter purges that have become commonplace in GOP-controlled states, expand mail-in voting and restore the civil rights-era Voting Rights Act, among many other measures.
The bill would also restrict the partisan gerrymandering that’s become the norm across the country—particularly in Republican-controlled districts. The practice has already rendered many states essentially non-democracies. (In my home state of Ohio, Democrats typically win between 40% and 50% of the statewide vote, but hold just four of 16 congressional seats—and may lose one of those after redistricting.)
The bill also contains a laundry list of reforms that social justice activists have promoted for years. Because it has virtually no Republican support, it will only pass the Senate if the filibuster is successfully neutralized.
Getting more voters to the polls will help, but Republicans will still remain vastly overrepresented in both the Senate and the Electoral College. The only solution, then, may be to add more states to the union.
While a few creative thinkers have proposed breaking California up into seven states, it might be more realistic to offer statehood to the millions of U.S. citizens living in different districts and colonial territories without federal representation. These include the approximately 700,00 residents of the District of Columbia (which does have three electoral votes, thanks to the 23rd Amendment) and the more than 3 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico.
The same is true of such former colonies as the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, none of which are represented in Congress or can vote in a presidential election. (Virgin Islands Delegate Stacey Plaskett helped manage the Democrats’ last impeachment proceedings despite being unable to vote in the trial itself.)
If the residents of these islands vote to join the union, Democrats should welcome their entry. A basic commitment to democracy demands it. (As colonial territories, they should also be allowed to choose independence, a subject for another column.)
If Republicans succeed in imposing minority rule, it won’t just make addressing crises like climate change and economic inequality through democratic means impossible. It will also presage a massive crackdown on activism of all kinds. Republican state officials have already passed laws making it a felony to nonviolently protest new fossil fuel infrastructure, as my colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies have documented. In these states and others, the GOP has also pushed laws protecting drivers who ram their cars into Black Lives Matter protesters.
The future of elections and the future of social movements are in grave jeopardy. Given the stakes, grassroots activists must push Democrats to swiftly and decisively fight back—if not for their constituents, then for their own political prospects.
If Democrats fail to act now, American democracy—and millions of lives—could be at stake.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and was supported with a grant from theFund for Investigative Journalism.
Get poisoned or get on board.
That’s the choice soybean farmers such as Will Glazik face. The past few summers, farmers near Glazik’s central Illinois farm have sprayed so much of the weed killer dicamba at the same time that it has polluted the air for hours and sometimes days.
As Glazik puts it, there are two types of soybeans: Monsanto’s, which are genetically engineered to withstand dicamba, and everyone else’s.
Glazik’s soybeans have been the damaged ones. His soybean leaves will curl up, then the plants will become smaller and weaker. He’s lost as much as 40 bushels an acre in some fields, a huge loss when organic soybeans are $20 a bushel. He has to hold his breath every year to see if the damage will cause him to lose his organic certification.
His neighbors who spray dicamba are frustrated with him, he said. There’s an easy solution to avoid damage, they tell him: Buy Monsanto’s seeds.
This reality is what Monsanto was counting on when it launched dicamba-tolerant crops, an investigation by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found.
Monsanto’s new system was supposed to be the future of farming, providing farmers with a suite of seeds and chemicals that could combat more and more weeds that were becoming harder to kill.
Instead, the system’s rollout has led to millions of acres of crop damage across the Midwest and South; widespread tree death in many rural communities, state parks and nature preserves; and an unprecedented level of strife
in the farming world.
Executives from Monsanto and BASF, a German chemical company that worked with Monsanto to launch the system, knew their dicamba weed killers would cause large-scale damage to fields across the United States but decided to push them on unsuspecting farmers anyway, in a bid to corner the soybean and cotton markets.
Monsanto and BASF have denied for years that dicamba is responsible for damage, blaming farmers making illegal applications, weather events and disease. The companies insist that when applied according to the label, dicamba stays on target and is an effective tool for farmers.
Over the past year, the Midwest Center reviewed thousands of pages of government and internal company documents released through lawsuits, sat in the courtroom for weeks of deliberation, interviewed farmers affected by dicamba and weed scientists dealing with the issue up close. This story provides the most comprehensive picture of what Monsanto and BASF knew about dicamba’s propensity to harm farmers’ livelihoods and the environment before releasing the weed killer.
The investigation found:
Monsanto released seeds resistant to dicamba in 2015 and 2016 without an accompanying weed killer, knowing that off-label spraying of dicamba, which is illegal, would be “rampant.” At the same time, BASF ramped up production of older versions of dicamba that were illegal to apply to the crops and made tens of millions of dollars selling the older versions, which were more likely to cause move off of where they were applied.
Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, refused to grant an interview with the Midwest Center. Company officials did not respond to requests for comment, instead issuing a statement.
Spokesman Kyel Richard said the company “has seen an outpouring of support from grower organizations and our customers.”
“We continue to stand with the thousands of farmers who rely on this technology as part of their integrated weed management program,” Richard said.
BASF also did not respond to requests for comment, instead issuing a statement.
BASF spokeswoman Odessa Patricia Hines said that the company’s version of dicamba has “different physical properties and compositions” than Monsanto’s. Hines said the company is continuing to improve its dicamba technology.
A federal court banned the herbicide earlier this year, but the EPA reinstated dicamba for five more years in October.
Earlier this year, a federal jury sided with a Missouri peach farmer who sued the companies for driving his orchard out of business. The jury awarded Bill Bader $15 million for his losses and $250 million in punitive damages designed to punish Bayer. Bayer and BASF are appealing the verdict. The punitive damages were later reduced to $60 million.
Hines of BASF pointed out that in the Missouri trial: “The jury’s
verdict found that only Monsanto’s conduct warranted punitive damages.”
Following the trial, Bayer announced a $400 million settlement with
farmers harmed by dicamba, including $300 million to soybean farmers.
Bayer said they expect BASF to pay for part of the settlement.
An attorney for Bader called the companies’ conduct “a conspiracy to
create an ecological disaster in order to increase their profits” in
court filings. The case largely revolved around showing the companies
knew dicamba would harm thousands of farmers.
According to court exhibits, in October 2015, Monsanto projected it would receive nearly 2,800 complaints from farmers
during the 2017 growing season, a figure based on one-in-10 farmers having a complaint.
However, even one Monsanto executive knew these projections might be
low, according to court records. In late August 2016, Boyd Carey, a
Ph.D. crop scientist overseeing the claims process for Monsanto,
realized it might be more like one-in-five and asked for a budget increase from $2.4 million to $6.5 million to investigate claims. Carey testified that he was awarded the increase.
The projected number of complaints rose to more than 3,200 for 2018,
before going down. After 2018, Monsanto figured that fewer farmers would
be harmed because more farmers would switch to Monsanto’s crops to
avoid being damaged, Carey testified in the Bader trial.
affects all parts of Glazik’s operation. He grows organic soybeans to
avoid exposure to toxic pesticides. He also likes the higher premiums
and the improved soil quality. But with dicamba in the air, he’s less
likely to be successful.
He now has to plant his soybeans later each year. Soybeans are less
likely to be severely damaged when they’re small, and planting them
later than usual means they’ll be smaller when the inevitable cloud of
weed killer envelops his crops. Later planting typically means a bit of
yield loss. It also means a later harvest, which limits planting of
cover crops Glazik uses to improve his soil.
“All crop damage aside,” he said, the weed killer is everywhere.
Oaks, hickories and other trees are damaged near his farm, both in the
country and in town, he said. “The fact is that the chemical can
volatilize and move with the wind and in the air. We’re breathing it.”
A ‘potential disaster’
For two decades, Monsanto made billions of dollars with Roundup Ready
crops, which had been genetically engineered to withstand being sprayed
by the weed killer and adopted by nearly every American soybean farmer.
But by the mid-to-late 2000s, Roundup was starting to fail. Farmer’s
fields were overwhelmed with “superweeds” that had developed resistance
to Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate.
In response, Monsanto developed new soybean and cotton seeds that
were genetically engineered to withstand being sprayed by both
glyphosate and dicamba, a very effective weed killer used since the
1960s. It was also touted as the company’s largest biotechnology rollout
in company history. In just three years, Monsanto’s dicamba-tolerant
system was able to capture up to three-fourths of total soybean acreage,
an area the size of Michigan.
Dicamba was not widely used during
the growing season because of its propensity to move off-target and
harm other plants. Because of its limited use, fewer weeds were
resistant to it, making it an effective replacement for Roundup.
Monsanto even dubbed the crops as its money-maker’s next generation,
calling them Roundup Ready 2 Xtend.
But the company faced a problem with dicamba: The weed killer drifted
onto non-resistant plants, some as far as miles away. In its own
testing over the years, Monsanto had accidentally harmed its own crops
dozens of times.
As far back as 2009, Monsanto and BASF received warnings about dicamba from several sources — one company called it a “potential disaster,”
according to court records — but they decided to plow ahead anyway.
“DON’T DO IT; expect lawsuits,” wrote one Monsanto employee, summarizing academic surveys the company commissioned about dicamba’s use.
In order to commercialize dicamba, both Monsanto and BASF worked to develop new formulations with low volatility.
Off-target movement from dicamba can happen in two main ways: drift
and volatilization. Drift is when the chemical’s particles move off the
field when they are sprayed, generally by wind in the seconds or minutes
after it is applied. Volatilization is when dicamba particles turn from
a liquid to a gas in the hours or days after the herbicide is applied.
Damage from volatilization frequently occurs through a process called “atmospheric loading,” which
is when so much dicamba is sprayed at the same time that it is unable
to dissipate and persists in the air for hours or days poisoning
whatever it comes into contact with.
Volatilization is particularly concerning because dicamba can move
for miles and harm non-target crops, especially soybeans, and even lawns
and gardens. Tomatoes, grapes and other specialty crops are also
at-risk of being damaged.
Despite being touted as less volatile, the new versions — Monsanto’s XtendiMax with VaporGrip Technology and BASF’s Engenia — were unable to stop the movement entirely.
During its 2012-2014 testing of an older version of XtendiMax, Monsanto had at least 73 off-target incidents, according to court documents.
In 2014, Monsanto had significant dicamba damage at a training facility in Portageville, Mo. Even in its own promotional videos, Monsanto couldn’t prevent non-dicamba tolerant soybeans from showing symptoms of damage.
The EPA took note of an incident where, through volatilization, dicamba turned into a gas and apparently floated more than 2 miles away, much farther than it was supposed to. During that incident, no one had measured how badly the crops had been damaged and the EPA was unable to definitively determine the symptoms were caused by dicamba. The EPA decided that was an “uncertainty” and approved the use of the weed killer with a 110-foot buffer zone.
In 2015, knowing the EPA was keeping an eye on off-target movement, Monsanto decided to halt all testing of XtendiMax
with VaporGrip Technology. According to court records, it kept its own employees, who were interested in developing recommendations for farmers, from testing, and it limited trials by independent academics in order to maintain a “clean slate.” It asked BASF to halt its dicamba testing
When a weed science professor at the University of Arkansas asked Monsanto for a little bit
of Xtendimax to test its volatility, the company told him it would have difficulty producing enough dicamba for both him and its independent tests.
A Monsanto employee, who worked at the company for 35 years, didn’t think much of that explanation when he forwarded the email to a colleague.
“Hahaha difficulty in producing enough product for field testing,” he wrote. “Hahaha bullshit.”
Illegal spraying a ‘ticking time bomb’
Weeds cut into farmers’ profits. With low profit margins, farmers will use any tool they can to control weeds.
Monsanto recognized this in 2015 and 2016 when they released dicamba-tolerant crops without their new versions of dicamba. An internal Monsanto slide shows the company knew that many farmers would likely illegally spray older, more volatile versions and harm other farmers’ crops.
But the company decided the benefits of establishing a market share outweighed the risks and launched the cotton crops in 2015. The EPA allowed farmers to spray other weed killers on the crops, and Monsanto decided to launch the seeds with “a robust communication plan that dicamba cannot be used.”
When the seeds were sold, Monsanto put a pink sticker on each bag to indicate it was illegal to spray dicamba on the crops in 2015. The company also sent letters to all growers and retailers, among other tactics, to limit illegal applications of dicamba.
However, in internal communications in April 2015, members of Monsanto’s cotton team joked about this risky strategy.
“One sticker is going to keep us out of jail,” one wrote.
In Oct. 2015, a BASF employee reported hearing that growers sprayed
older versions of dicamba on the cotton that year.
Monsanto doubled down on this risky strategy in 2016, releasing dicamba-tolerant soybean crops without a weed killer, too. Meanwhile, Monsanto also declined to investigate drift incidents in 2015 and 2016.
At a February 2016 meeting in Puerto Rico, a BASF executive expressed concerns to Monsanto that the “widespread” illegal spraying would likely become “rampant” due to the decision.
BASF also benefited from Monsanto’s decision. The company’s sales of older versions of dicamba spiked in 2016. Retailers sold $100 million worth of its older versions of the weed killer, compared to about $60 million annually in 2014 and 2015, according to internal documents. BASF documents indicated the sales increased
because of dicamba-tolerant seeds.
In the summer of 2016, BASF sales representatives in the field were reporting older versions of dicamba causing damage, hinting the problem was predictable.
“The one thing most acres of beans have in common is dicamba damage. There must be a huge cloud of dicamba blanketing the Missouri Bootheel,” a BASF employee wrote in a July 4, 2016, report. “That ticking time bomb finally exploded.”
Drift expected to drive sales
Dicamba drift led to widespread news coverage. Monsanto and BASF expected to turn it all into more money.
In an internal document, Monsanto told its sales teams to target growers that weren’t interested in dicamba and dicamba-resistant crops. The sales pitch? Purchasing Monsanto’s products would protect them from their neighbors.
In April 2017, a market research document prepared by Bank of America found many farmers were doing just that.
“Interesting assessment that much of the Xtend acreage was planted to protect themselves from neighbors who might be using dicamba? Gotta admit I would not have expected this in a market research document,” a Monsanto executive wrote.
In internal slides from a September 2016 meeting, BASF identified “defensive planting” as a
potential market opportunity. BASF also had a market research document
that found defensive planting was driving sales.
However, a “tough questions” memo distributed to BASF employees in November 2017 told employees the opposite: “We have not considered ‘defensive planting’ in our sales projections.”
Even as thousands of farms across millions of acres of cropland were being damaged, Monsanto officials were touting the damage as a sales opportunity.
“I think we can significantly grow business and have a positive effect on the outcome of 2017 if we reach out to all the driftee people,” another Monsanto sales employee wrote in an email that year.
One of those customers was Bill Bader, the peach farmer who sued Monsanto for destroying his orchard. Bader testified that while he could not protect his peach trees, in 2019 he planted dicamba-tolerant soybeans to help protect his soybean crops from getting damaged.
“This is the first product in American history that literally destroys the competition,” Bader’s attorney, Billy Randles, said. “You buy it or else.”
Research designed to downplay harm
For years, the EPA told Monsanto it needed to address volatility in its dicamba studies when applying for regulatory approval. But the tests Monsanto conducted did not reflect real-world conditions.
Dicamba would primarily be sprayed on soybeans, but 2015 studies submitted to the EPA were conducted at a cotton field in Texas and a dirt field in Georgia. Neither state has a large amount of soybeans. This guidance followed directives from Monsanto lobbyists that incorporated earlier Monsanto research
showing that higher volatility was detected on fields with soybeans.
In addition, Monsanto did not follow the rules that would eventually be codified on the label.
During the testing in Texas, wind speeds were 1.9 to 4.9 miles per hour. In Georgia, wind speeds were 1.5 to 3 miles per hour. According to the label the EPA approved, dicamba can only be sprayed with wind speeds between 3 and 10 miles per hour. Spraying at low wind speeds is more likely to lead to volatilization because there is increased risk of a temperature inversion, which is when cooler air is caught beneath a layer of warmer air making gases more likely to persist near the ground.
After Monsanto submitted the tests to the EPA, the company still had a lot of unknowns about its product’s volatility, according to internal emails.
A Monsanto researcher wrote an email in February 2016 to his coworkers that underscored how little the company knew about the propensity of dicamba to damage crops.
“We don’t know how long a sensitive plant needs in a natural setting to show volatility damage. We don’t know what concentration in the air causes a response, either,” he wrote. “There is a big difference for plants exposed to dicamba vapor for 24 vs. 48 hours. Be careful using this externally.”
Despite the design of the studies, and the EPA’s own studies that showed dicamba posed a risk to 322 protected species of animals and plants, the agency conditionally approved the herbicide in 2016. The agency determined that mitigation measures — such as not spraying near specialty crops and endangered species habitats, wind speed restrictions, and a ban on aerial applications — would keep spray droplets on target.
It was only approved for two years, when the agency would review its approval again.
After the conditional approval, BASF knew dicamba still posed risks. While BASF told farmers dicamba drift wouldn’t hurt their bottom lines, the company privately told pesticide applicators
that any drift they caused could decrease farmers’ harvests, according to internal BASF documents. A BASF executive said “from a practical standpoint” Engenia was not different
from older dicamba versions.
Even Monsanto’s sales teams were having problems with dicamba’s reputation after the EPA approved the weed killer.
In an internal email, a Monsanto salesman took issue with BASF changing how it publicly discussed its dicamba product: It used to say volatility was not a problem, but now it said it was. Another chemical company saying volatility was bad could hurt Monsanto’s sales.
“We need to get on this right now!” the salesman emailed his colleagues. “Deny! Deny! DENY!”
‘Never admit guilt’
In 2017, the first season that the new versions of dicamba were approved, damage reached unprecedented levels. Around 3.6 million acres of soybeans were damaged, according to an estimate from the University of Missouri.
In July of that year, Monsanto executives scheduled a meeting to discuss how to combat coverage of complaints.
“We need REAL scientific support for our product to counteract the supposition happening in the market today,” a Monsanto executive wrote in an email. “To be frank, dealers and growers are losing confidence in Xtendimax.”
In late summer 2017, Monsanto had started to blame damage on a BASF weed killer, which is used on the main competitor to Monsanto’s own soybeans. In December 2017, Monsanto agreed to drop that argument
as part of a defense strategy with BASF against farmers.
Both Monsanto and BASF took steps to shield themselves from lawsuits.
The form Monsanto told its investigators to use when examining farmer complaints was “developed to gather data that could defend Monsanto,” according to an internal company presentation. Later, Monsanto said that 91% of applicators using the form self-reported errors in spraying dicamba.
A BASF executive also edited his company’s drift investigation Q&A.
“I was always told to never admit guilt,” he said.
On top of the investigations, the label left pesticide applicators liable for damage because it was nearly impossible to follow. A 2017 survey of applicators
found that most trained sprayers had issues with dicamba even when spraying in good conditions and while following the label.
With damage being reported in 2017, Monsanto also declined to pursue a study that would have given the company more information about how dicamba caused damage on real farms. A Monsanto off-target movement researcher sent a request for a project proposal to Exponent, which helped analyze the data Monsanto submitted to the EPA. The study could be done in less than two weeks and cost $6,000.
The researcher forwarded the proposal to two Monsanto executives.
The company never acted on it, one testified in the trial.
‘The problems have not gone away’
In order to combat the damage, the EPA developed new restrictions on dicamba. In doing so, the EPA dropped an idea that Monsanto opposed, and Monsanto dictated the new restrictions that were adopted.
State officials warned the EPA the changes wouldn’t work. They were right. In 2018, at least 4.1 million acres were damaged, according to EPA documents.
Still, the EPA re-approved dicamba for the 2019 and 2020 growing seasons with new restrictions, some of which ignored agency scientists’ recommendations.
States also increasingly took measures into their own hands, implementing spraying cut-off dates and temperature restrictions.
The damage continued. Illinois, the nation’s largest soybean producing state, had more complaints than ever in 2019.
Iowa had “landscape level” damage in 2020.
Aaron Hager, an associate professor of weed science at the University of Illinois, said it is clear the changes haven’t worked.
“We have revised the label and revised it again,” Hager said. “The problems have not gone away.”
The EPA’s decision was eventually voided by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for failing to properly consider the impacts on farmers and the environment. The court ruled the agency gave too much deference to Bayer and also was lacking necessary data to show too much harm wouldn’t be done.
Dicamba was recently reapproved, and Bayer continues to invest in it. The company will release new soybean seeds designed to be resistant to dicamba and glufosinate, another BASF herbicide, to fill 20 million acres in 2021. The company also continues to work toward approval of other seeds that are resistant to dicamba and other herbicides.
Glazik, the organic Illinois soybean farmer, works as a crops consultant advising other farmers on what to plant. As the damage has continued, he said, more and more of his clients are “feeling bullied into” buying the dicamba-tolerant crops. Others tell him, they have to spray dicamba or else they can’t control the weeds.
But as an organic farmer, Glazik said, no single herbicide is necessary. Instead, farmers have a choice. Well-managed fields can be weed-free without using toxic chemicals, he said.
“You don’t have to have the dicamba spray to control weeds in a field,” he said.