"You see how small they are?" says Chen, gesturing at a field filled with thousands of small plots of soybeans.
The leaves ought to be wide and flat; instead, they're curled into cups. Instead of growing straight up, the plants are putting out fragile little side branches. Chen pulls a plant out of the soil to show me. "This plant is not supposed to have a branch there," he says, pointing.
Chen, a professor of soybean breeding and genetics, has a pretty good idea what's going on. He's seen this damage each of the past three years, ever since farmers all around this research station — and across the country — started planting a different version of soybeans. The biotech company Monsanto had genetically modified these new soybeans so that they tolerate a herbicide called dicamba. It allows farmers to spray dicamba on their soybeans; it kills the weeds, but their dicamba-tolerant crop is fine.
The arrival of dicamba has inspired two reactions in farming communities: "Love it or hate it," says Chen.
Farmers who are using the chemical love it. It kills weeds that have become resistant to many other weedkillers. Their neighbors, though — that's a different story.
Dicamba doesn't always stay where it belongs — even new versions of the chemical that have been reformulated to avoid this problem. All over the country, it's been evaporating and floating across the landscape, damaging vegetation that doesn't have those special dicamba tolerance genes. The victims include peach trees, tomato gardens, and historic cypress trees.
Most of the damage has shown up in fields of soybeans that aren't modified to withstand dicamba. Those plants are incredibly sensitive to the chemical.
Most farmers in the mid-South have now switched over to dicamba-tolerant soybeans. Their fields are safe.
Chen can't switch, though. Because he's supposed to produce knowledge, not more soybeans.
Plant breeding involves taking different plants and cross-pollinating them, reshuffling the genes the way you'd shuffle a deck of cards, looking for the genetic version of a lucky hand — "the magic combination," Chen calls it.
Most new soybean varieties come from breeders at private seed companies. But Chen is a "public" soybean breeder, one of a dozen or so such breeders at universities. They represent a non-commercial alternative to private industry. They create soybean varieties for farmers that are cheaper than commercial varieties, and farmers can also save part of their harvest to use as seed the following year.
Chen's soybeans are not dicamba tolerant, and they're suffering. "It's very discouraging, and very hurtful, as a scientist," he says. "You see all the research being affected. And we were not able to do a scientific analysis of the data."
Public breeders like Chen also act as custodians of genetic diversity. They study obscure kinds of soybeans that private seeds companies ignore, searching for hidden genetic treasures, such as genes that could make soybeans more resilient and productive.
Chen's biggest worry is that drifting dicamba is making it impossible to carry out public research on soybeans here in Portageville and perhaps in other places, too. (It also makes farmers less interested in planting public varieties, since they're vulnerable to dicamba drift.) "If you kill the public research programs, who is going to study disease resistance, or stress tolerance?" Chen asks. "Those efforts are going to be gone."
Soybean researchers are, in fact, having problems at other universities. In response to NPR's inquiries, soybean breeders at the University of Nebraska, Kansas State, and the University of Arkansas confirmed that they've also seen symptoms of dicamba exposure in their test plots.
At the University of Arkansas's research station in the town of Keiser, in the northeastern Arkansas, station manager Mike Duren showed me a wide field of soybeans showing classic dicamba symptoms: cupped leaves with curled, pointed tips. Across the research station's 700 acres, he says, every single plot of soybeans looks like this — except for the occasional plot of commercial dicamba-tolerant soybeans that researchers have planted as a comparison. It's happening despite a state regulation that bans dicamba spraying within a mile of research facilities.
Even commercial seed companies are seeing the effects of unwanted dicamba vapor. Stine Seed, which is based in Iowa, told NPR in an email that it has "experienced significant problems" with damage in some of its research plots. BASF, a big company that sells both soybean seeds and dicamba herbicide, has seen symptoms of dicamba exposure at its soybean breeding station in Marion, Ark. But Christopher Tinius, BASF's head of soybean breeding, says it has not hindered the company's research efforts. BASF, in fact, has licensed the dicamba-tolerance gene from Monsanto and is planning to start selling dicamba-tolerant soybean seeds within a few years.
The company Bayer, which now owns Monsanto, says dicamba doesn't cause problems when people use it properly, following all the rules. In an email to NPR, the company wrote that it is aware of the damage at Pengyin Chen's research plots at the University of Missouri. The company suggested that perhaps the damage resulted from nearby farmers spraying an older, unauthorized version of the chemical.
Researchers at universities in other places, including Tennessee, Minnesota, and North Carolina, say that their soybean experiments are doing fine. But some of them also say that they are worried about the future. Farmers are planting more dicamba-tolerant soybeans every year, spraying more of this chemical, and increasing the chances that it'll do more damage. Bayer estimates that U.S. farmers will plant about 50 million acres of dicamba-tolerant soybeans this year. That's 60 percent of all the soybeans planted in the country.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There is a weed killer that American farmers spray on millions of acres. It's hard to control, and its fumes have drifted across the landscape, damaging other crops and wild vegetation. Now the chemical is becoming a threat to scientific research on one of the world's most important crops - soybeans. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Professor Pengyin Chen at the University of Missouri has devoted his life to soybeans - breeding new varieties of it.
So you've been breeding soybeans for how long?
PENGYIN CHEN: Twenty-eight years. If you're counting my student - graduate school, it's more than 30 years now.
CHARLES: He takes different soybean plants, cross-pollinates them, reshuffling the genes the way you'd reshuffle and deal cards, looking for the genetic version of a lucky hand.
CHEN: We do the magic combination.
CHARLES: He does it here on 16,000 or so small plots of soybeans at the Fisher Delta Research Center in the southeastern corner of Missouri.
CHEN: This is the first field we planted this year.
CHARLES: But something is wrong with the soybeans out here.
CHEN: You see how small they are? - the canopy.
CHARLES: The leaves ought to be wide and flat. Instead, they're curled into cups. Also, instead of growing straight up, the plants are putting out fragile, little side branches.
CHEN: This plant is not supposed to have a branch there. No.
CHARLES: It's kind of being deformed.
CHEN: Yes, somewhat. Yeah.
CHARLES: It's pretty clear what's going on here, actually. Chen's been seeing this kind of damage for three years now, ever since farmers all around this research station and across the country started planting a different kind of soybeans. These soybeans are genetically modified to tolerate a herbicide called dicamba. So farmers can spray dicamba in their fields, and it kills the weeds. But the dicamba-tolerant soybeans are fine. Dicamba's arrival is provoking two different reactions.
CHEN: Love it or hate it.
CHARLES: Farmers who use dicamba love it because it works. The neighbors, though - they've got a problem. All over the country, dicamba's been evaporating and floating away, damaging vegetation that doesn't have those special dicamba-tolerance genes, especially soybeans. They're incredibly sensitive to dicamba. Now, most farmers have now switched over to dicamba-tolerant soybeans. Their fields are safe. Chen can't switch, though, because he's supposed to produce knowledge not more soybeans. He's a so-called public soybean breeder - a non-commercial alternative to the big seed companies. The soybeans he's studying out here are not dicamba-tolerant, so they are suffering.
CHEN: It was very discouraging and very hurtful. I mean, as a scientist, you see all the research being affected. And we were not able to do a scientific analysis of the data.
CHARLES: Public breeders like Chen are like custodians of genetic diversity for the world's most important crops. They study obscure kinds of soybeans that private seed companies ignore, searching for hidden genetic treasures - genes that can make soybeans more resilient and productive. His biggest worry is that dicamba's making it impossible to carry out public research on soybeans here and maybe other places too.
CHEN: If you kill all the public research programs, who is going to study the disease resistance or stress tolerance? So those efforts are going to be gone.
CHARLES: Soybean researchers in other places are having problems. They're reporting damage at the University of Nebraska, Kansas State and at the University of Arkansas. I visited a research farm in the town of Keiser in northeast Arkansas. And station manager Mike Duren showed me soybeans with classic dicamba symptoms.
MIKE DUREN: The very tip of the leaf itself has a distinct curled-up point to it.
CHARLES: Do you think - walking around this farm, you said 700 acres. Of the acres that are in soybeans, how many of them do you think would show these kinds of symptoms?
DUREN: A hundred percent.
CHARLES: Hundred percent - every single one.
CHARLES: The company Bayer, which created dicamba-tolerant soybeans, says dicamba does not cause problems when people use it properly, following all the rules. In an email to NPR, the company wrote that it's aware of the damage at Chen's research plots. It suggested that perhaps it came from nearby farmers spraying an older, unauthorized version of the chemical. Researchers at universities in other places like Tennessee, Minnesota and North Carolina say their soybean experiments are doing fine. But some of them also say they're worried because farmers are planting more dicamba-tolerant soybeans every year, spraying more of this chemical and increasing the chances it'll do more damage.
Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.