Brave New Hay

Is Monsanto erasing the line between what is natural and what is not?

  • Is Monsanto erasing the line between what is natural and what is not?

    Mike Shipman/blueplanetphoto.com
  • Genetically modified alfalfa stands up to the weed killer Roundup, here being sprayed on an Idaho field

    Mike Shipman/blueplanetphoto.com
  • Paul Rasgorshek

    Mike Shipman/blueplanetphoto.com
  • Jerry Tlucek feeds his dairy cows Roundup Ready alfalfa in Melba, Idaho. Tlucek was the first farmer in the country to grow the genetically modified plant

    Mike Shipman/blueplanetphoto.com
  • Roundup Ready seeds in the West. Source: Forage Genetics International

  • Bags of Roundup Ready seed that Jerry Tlucek bought but can't plant because of a court injunction

    Mike Shipman/blueplanetphoto.com
  • Vince Holtz grows conventional alfalfa seed near Nampa

    Mike Shipman/blueplanetphoto.com
  • "Escaped" alfalfa, in a vacant lot in Nampa, Idaho

    Mike Shipman/blueplanetphoto.com
  • The brochure Phil Geertson had inserted in ranch newspapers around the country

 

NAMPA, IDAHO

 

On an unseasonably cold afternoon in early May, Paul Rasgorshek is making the rounds of his farm, some 3,000 acres perched in the lava-rimmed country on the edge of the Snake River. Wet clouds scud out of the Owyhee Mountains, and from behind the wheel of his pickup, Rasgorshek juggles the two-way radio and the Nextel cell phone that he uses to coordinate the farm’s 17 employees. Then he eases the truck to a stop to take a close look at the future of farming.

A new field of alfalfa plants pokes up green and lush from the rough ground, surrounded by what Rasgorshek, with the slightest trace of a savoring grin, calls “the dead carcasses” of freshly killed weeds. Farmers here can typically get about three good years out of their alfalfa fields before weeds begin taking over. Then, they often use an herbicide called Roundup to — in a euphemism that makes them sound like botanical mafiosi — “take out” the alfalfa and clear the field for another crop.

Roundup is a potent plant killer, but the alfalfa in Rasgorshek’s field has been genetically engineered to be immune to the herbicide. That feat of agricultural alchemy allows farmers to spray their fields without damaging the crop itself. “It’s just amazing that you can spray something over the top of the alfalfa, and it doesn’t kill it,” Rasgorshek says.

Behind this revolution in farming is Monsanto, the storied, St. Louis-based chemical company. Monsanto not only manufactures Roundup, but also genetically engineered the Roundup-resistant gene into the alfalfa that Rasgorshek began growing three years ago. Today, “Roundup Ready” alfalfa is planted on some 220,000 acres nationwide, and Rasgorshek is an unapologetic genetic-engineering loyalist. “In today’s agriculture, if you just sit back, you’re not gonna survive,” he says. “If you don’t change with the times, you’re gonna go down.”

Yet Rasgorshek is growing what is at least temporarily an illegal substance. On May 3, a federal district judge banned the sale or planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa until the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts a full environmental impact statement on the crop. It is the first time such a rigorous review has ever been required of a genetically modified crop, and the ruling could have significant implications for all such crops, which now cover the vast majority of the nation’s farmland.

Over the past decade, genetic engineering has profoundly transformed American agriculture. Monsanto stands at the forefront of that endeavor. Today, roughly half of the U.S. corn crop, three quarters of the cotton, and 85 percent of the soybeans are genetically modified in some way.

Alfalfa — the favored fare of dairy cows, beef cattle and health nuts — is an unlikely flash point for the controversy over genetically modified crops. Yet the legal fight over Roundup Ready alfalfa attests to just how far Monsanto’s massive foray into crop genetics has reached — and it is just one piece of a pair of larger, interrelated controversies in which the company is now entangled.

One centers on the environmental impacts of genetically modified crops. Evidence is mounting that such crops, which were introduced after undergoing only cursory review, have led to the appearance of “superweeds” that have themselves mutated to survive Roundup herbicide and threaten to impose new costs on farmers and the environment. And, while the long-term human health implications of those transformed crops are still not understood, there are reports that Monsanto’s proprietary genes have contaminated traditional and organic crops, transforming the very nature of the food we eat.

But Monsanto is also embroiled in a second controversy. The company has intervened not only in the genetic architecture of the nation’s food and feed crops, but in the very business of American farming itself. Monsanto now faces mounting legal challenges from its seed-growing competitors. It appears that the saga of Roundup Ready crops is ultimately less about genetic manipulation than about corporate power. Through a comprehensive scheme of takeovers, acquisitions and alleged strong-arming of competition, Monsanto is building an empire. Along the way, it seems to be erasing the line between what is genetically engineered and what is not.

Anonymous
Jun 21, 2007 03:01 PM

i know its not right because it almost seems now that i dont even have the right to choose how and what i want to eat. i have been pretty conscious about not eating genetically motified organisms but it seems as though i have been doing this in vain because reguardless of what i do corporate agrobusiness and corporate chemical companies still have the monopoly over what we all eat!!! how sad is that?

Anonymous
Jun 29, 2007 11:14 AM

Chill.Know all facts before forming an informed decision.

Anonymous
Jul 03, 2007 11:44 AM

it seems more scary to me than anything. Are these people not thinking about the future?  When everything is contaminated and then it is learned the gmo crops have some terrible side effect it will be too late. all natural seeds will be harder and harder to come by and probably be controlled by Monsanto if we let it. we need to take our food back, food is not a business it is life!

Anonymous
Aug 16, 2007 12:09 PM

Don't tell me to chill!  We don't know all the facts about how gmo crops can harm humans and the environment, so how can we possibly make an informed decision?  Monsonto is asking us to enter the realm of unknown for their profit and our health or the health of our planet may be at stake.  That is unacceptable.

Las Vegas, Nevada

Anonymous
Jan 18, 2008 11:31 AM

The subject is a fascinating one, but I agree, it's a little scary.

Food that kills
April
April
Jun 22, 2010 04:06 PM
Here's a thought: should food kill?

Secondly, should we ever find that GMO does in fact promote disease, corporate control is at the point no one has any say in owning anything food related, farmers are forced into paying high prices, along with consumers, and the environment is completely wiped out, what then? As a farmer, I don't want that on my head. I took the initiative to do the research, and it wasn't at all pretty. Farmers need to think this stuff through with a bit more insight than just the ease of operation and bottom line (which doesn't exist anymore anyway).