Weed rock star took flak last year

After Monsanto criticism in dicamba case, he reaps honors


Photographs by Stephen Steed

Jason Norsworthy (left) explains the results of his experiments involving dicamba during a “field day” for farmers last summer at the University of Arkansas Agriculture Division’s research station at Keiser in Mississippi County.

Jason Norsworthy, a rock star in the weed-science community, is only a few months removed from one of the most challenging events in Arkansas agriculture.

Norsworthy early last month received the Weed Science Society of America's top award for research and was named as a Fellow in the society, the organization's highest and rarest honor. The recognition comes after Monsanto criticized Norsworthy, by name, during the height of the company's battle with the state Plant Board over the herbicide dicamba.

Norsworthy, 44, was among three weed scientists with the University of Arkansas System's Agriculture Division to appear regularly before the Plant Board last summer in response to some 1,000 formal complaints that the chemical had damaged soybeans and other crops, backyard gardens, and trees and shrubs.

Farmers in about a dozen other soybean-producing states filed similar complaints, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency is considering whether to allow dicamba for in-crop use beyond the 2018 growing season.

Norsworthy and his colleagues said the herbicide's "volatility" -- its ability to lift off sprayed plants and move as a vapor to susceptible crops -- caused most of the problems.

Monsanto, which was trying to get its new dicamba formula into the Arkansas market to go along with its dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton, disagreed. While the company in July and August largely blamed the problems on errors by farmers and applicators or the use of illegal formulations of dicamba, it singled out Norsworthy in September, claiming that his research is biased.

"Never before had I seen an industry go directly at a university scientist," Norsworthy, who is based in Fayetteville, said in a recent interview. "I got a lot of phone calls and emails telling me to 'stay the course' and "it's all about the science."'

Just a couple of days before the broadside, Monsanto had invited Norsworthy to its headquarters in St. Louis to discuss his dicamba findings with other weed scientists from across the country. "I think that shows there was a disconnect between what the corporation was doing and what individuals in the company were doing in their relationships with farmers and weed scientists," Norsworthy said.

The university -- and weed scientists across the South and Midwest -- went to Norsworthy's defense.

"First, and most importantly, we stand by the integrity of our scientists and their science, including Dr. Jason Norsworthy, our internationally recognized research and his work," Mark Cochran, vice president for agriculture, wrote in a statement after Monsanto's criticism.

Monsanto called Norsworthy's research an "outlier" not consistent with other studies. Cochran said the scientist's work was "consistent with research in other states," including Missouri and Tennessee.

Aaron Hager, a weed scientist in Illinois, said in an email to the Delta Farm Press that "it's a sad day in weed science when the industry has reached a point where instead of debating data, they instead launch attacks on public-sector scientists."

Other weed scientists took to other forms of social media to defend Norsworthy's work and to say their own experiments showed volatility even with the new products of Monsanto and BASF.

A paper co-written by Norsworthy on cover crops for soybeans tolerant of glyphosate and glufosinate also received a top award. Besides the three awards for Norsworthy, the weed science group also:

• Named Chris Meyer, a UA doctoral candidate in weed science, as its outstanding graduate student. Meyer last summer was noted for his work showing how dicamba can get stirred up in the dust of farm roads and move off target.

• Named Nicholas Korres, a UA weed scientist, as outstanding reviewer.

• Selected Prashant Jha, a former UA graduate student under Norsworthy's supervision, as "outstanding early-career" weed scientist. Jha is now at Montana State University.

During the same week, Bob Scott, another UA weed scientist, took over as president of the Southern Weed Science Society.

It was a near-sweep of the awards for the UA scientists.

Ty Witten, a Monsanto representative, said in an email: "We appreciate Dr. Norsworthy's many contributions to the weed science and agricultural communities over the course of his career, and we look forward to continuing to work with him on scientific research on important questions in the future."

The 62-year-old Weed Science Society of America limits the naming of fellows to three-tenths of 1 percent of its membership, said Krishna Reddy, a scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research station in Stoneville, Miss., and chairman of the society's awards committee. With 685 members this year, two Fellows, including Norsworthy, were named.

The recognition of Norsworthy was for his "entire career, not just dicamba, which is just a small part of his work," Reddy said, citing Norsworthy's work as a professor, his guidance of award-winning graduate students, and his studies of herbicide-resistant weeds.

Norsworthy said he doesn't feel vindicated by the awards that he and his colleagues won.

"They're a reflection of the weed science program," he said.

"Sure, it's hard to sit there and hear what's being said, read what's being written," Norsworthy said. "There certainly was a lot of mud thrown last year, and I'm not certain it's over yet. All you can do is keep moving forward and conduct nonbiased research, to help growers and their needs."

The Plant Board will prohibit dicamba's use on crops this year between April 16 and Oct. 31. That keeps Monsanto's Xtendimax dicamba out of Arkansas, as well as BASF's Engenia, the only in-crop dicamba allowed last year.

"I'm not aware of any pesticide or herbicide that had the impact -- the negative impact -- on U.S. agriculture that dicamba had in 2017," Norsworthy said. "It divided the ag community itself. There really was no one in the middle. Everyone had a strong opinion on whether it could or couldn't be used successfully. And then it drove a wedge between ag and non-ag when backyard gardens got hit, when trees and shrubs in communities got hit."

In the wake of the state's dicamba decision, Norsworthy declined to predict how farmers, especially in Arkansas, will react this summer. In particular, he referred to the use of older, more volatile formulations of dicamba that are illegal for emerged-crop spraying.

"I'm optimistic, or I try to be," he said. "I hope farmers adhere to the regulations, but if the product is used illegally and there's damage across the U.S., there will be serious repercussions come November with the EPA."

SundayMonday Business on 03/11/2018

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