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.