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Science & Environment

Bayer And BASF Ordered To Pay Missouri Farmer Over $250 Million In Herbicide Case

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Now to a peach farmer who has reason to celebrate. A jury over the weekend said he should get a quarter billion dollars in damages from two big agricultural seed and chemical companies. This is just the first of many similar lawsuits over a product that's turned neighbor against neighbor in farming communities. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: A few years ago, the company Monsanto, which is now owned by Bayer, started selling some new varieties of soybeans and cotton. They were genetically modified to tolerate a weed killer that's been around for decades called dicamba so farmers could spray dicamba right over these new crops. It killed the weeds, but the crops were fine. But Harrison Pittman, who's director of the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas, says it was controversial from the start.

HARRISON PITTMAN: It's been a divisive issue.

CHARLES: Because dicamba sometimes doesn't stay where it's sprayed. It can evaporate and then spread into neighboring fields, damaging crops there. And Pittman says one of the first farmers who reported dicamba damage was Bill Bader in southeastern Missouri.

PITTMAN: As part of his farming operation, he has roughly a thousand-acre peach orchard.

CHARLES: Bill Bader says dicamba vapor is destroying his orchard, so he sued Bayer and also BASF, another company that sells the dicamba herbicide. His lawyers argued that the companies knew that dicamba would damage neighboring crops but went ahead and sold the products anyway, and they presented evidence of this from internal company emails and memos. The companies, for their part, said Bill Bader's peach trees were mainly suffering from a soil fungus, not dicamba exposure.

The trial took three weeks, but the jury deliberated just a few hours. It ordered the two companies together to pay $15 million to compensate Bader Farms for its losses plus $250 million in punitive damages to punish what the jurors apparently saw as bad corporate behavior. Pittman from the National Agricultural Law Center sounds a little shocked.

PITTMAN: This is just a lot of - it's a lot of money on the table. And, of course, these issues are still playing out.

CHARLES: Bayer says it will appeal the decision. Meanwhile, it's facing another lawsuit in which more than 100 farmers from multiple states are demanding compensation for their dicamba damage, and that's on top of an even bigger legal headache connected to another herbicide that Bayer sells called glyphosate, or Roundup. Thousands of people have sued the company, saying that exposure to glyphosate caused their cancer. Bayer denies that, but it's been trying to negotiate a settlement. Outside experts say it could cost the company billions of dollars.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YEAH YEAH YEAHS SONG, "DRAGON QUEEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.