The active ingredient in Roundup is a chemical called glyphosate. First introduced in 1976, the herbicide is, unlike earlier generations of pesticides, relatively safe because it targets a metabolic pathway found in plants but not animals. Monsanto’s patent for the chemical gave it de facto monopoly control over the glyphosate market, and in 2000, half of Monsanto’s $5.5 billion in sales came from Roundup. But the patent was about to expire, opening the door for other companies to start manufacturing and selling glyphosate themselves.
Four years earlier, however, Monsanto unveiled the first in its stable of Roundup Ready crops, which promised the company a way to maintain its lock on the glyphosate market. In fact, some of Monsanto’s foes now argue, the entire Roundup Ready enterprise has been as much about engineering the market as it was about engineering the crops themselves.
The rough sketch of the story goes back to the 1980s, when, during a routine survey of the waste piles at a Roundup-manufacturing facility in Louisiana, Monsanto scientists discovered mutants: bacteria that — thanks to the evolutionarily intense selective pressures of the environment in which it lived — had become immune to Roundup.
If it were possible to insert the Roundup-resistant gene from the bacteria into crop plants so they could be doused with weed killer without sustaining any damage themselves, the continued demand for Roundup was practically guaranteed. Sensing a moneymaker, Monsanto extracted that gene from the bacteria; eventually, the company devised a way to hitch the gene to another type of bacteria, which was then used to shoehorn the gene into crop plants.
Then, as Daniel Charles recounts in his 2001 book Lords of the Harvest, Monsanto lifted a page from Microsoft’s book: “A seed was hardware, like the electronic circuits of a computer; Monsanto’s gene was the software that it could turn into a useful tool. Just as Microsoft licensed its Windows operating system to computer makers, which in turn sold the entire package to consumers, Monsanto could license its genes to a wide variety of seed companies. Those companies would breed the gene into many different varieties of plants and sell those seeds to farmers.”
After gaining quick regulatory approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Monsanto first licensed the Roundup-resistant gene to a company called Asgrow and the seed giant Pioneer Hi-Bred, which inserted them into soybeans and released them in 1996. Roundup Ready cotton and canola followed in 1997; Roundup Ready corn in 1998.
In the years since, Roundup Ready crops have been a huge commercial success, and they have transformed Monsanto as well. The company that made its name in chemicals now makes far more money from seeds than herbicides: Last year, 70 percent of Monsanto’s $3.5 billion profit came from seeds, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“I do a lot of thinking when I’m in a tractor,” says Jerry Tlucek, who runs a dairy south of Nampa. “And I like to be with God — you know, just the Lord and me.” Tlucek was the first farmer in the country to grow Roundup Ready alfalfa hay, and his fields are a sort of testament to the promise of biotechnology: They stand emerald-green and surreally flawless amid the sagebrush and cheatgrass here. “I won’t plant conventional alfalfa again. I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Tlucek. “(Roundup) will kill every weed in there, and it won’t kill one blade of alfalfa.”
Alfalfa’s humble bearing belies its agricultural importance. It is the fourth-largest crop in the nation, after corn, soybeans and wheat; in the 11 Western states, alfalfa is grown on about 5.6 million acres, or nearly a quarter of the total farmland. A dairy cow can eat as much as six tons of alfalfa a year, and the plant is also an important feed for beef cattle and horses. Seven percent of the alfalfa produced in the U.S. is eaten directly by humans in the form of sprouts; smaller amounts go into pellets of the sort fed to pet rabbits; and alfalfa is one of the main sources of nectar for honey production.
Monsanto turned its attention to alfalfa in 1998. A year later, it licensed the Roundup Ready gene to a company called Forage Genetics International, which is owned by the Land O’Lakes dairy cooperative and based about 10 miles from Rasgorshek’s farm, in Nampa. Monsanto then licensed 21 seed companies to sell the seed developed and grown by Forage Genetics; those companies include Pioneer and Croplan Genetics, itself another Land O’Lakes subsidiary. (Monsanto and Forage Genetics both declined requests for interviews for this story.)
Under a federal law enacted in 2000, genetically modified organisms are regulated as “plant pests” until the U.S. Department of Agriculture is certain they pose no danger to crops, public health or the environment. In 2004, Forage Genetics submitted a request to the USDA to “deregulate” Roundup Ready alfalfa so it could be grown commercially. The same year, the company contracted with Rasgorshek and several other farmers in Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado to begin growing several thousand acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed that would be bagged and sold to hay growers. A little more than 14 months after Forage Genetics and Monsanto asked the USDA to deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa, the department issued an 18-page environmental assessment and, on June 27, 2005, cleared the crop for commercial planting. Today, more than 3,000 farmers now grow it on some 220,000 acres nationwide, including at least nine of the 11 Western states.
Phil Geertson, who runs a small seed business in Idaho, is something of a heretic in the temple of genetic engineering. “There are people who feel that doing that type of work is sort of within God’s realm, and it is not something that humans should be doing,” he says. “I’m not a religious person, but I think there’s something just inherently wrong with this — that they can take different species and combine ’em the way they wanna combine ’em.”
Geertson, along with other growers, argues that now that the Roundup Ready gene has been set loose in the world, it will be impossible to contain. In fact, he says it has already set off a wave of dire consequences. Last year, like Martin Luther nailing his theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Geertson printed up 100,000 copies of a flier with a cover that screams, “Roundup Ready Alfalfa is a Very Bad Idea!” Then he had it inserted in farm newspapers throughout the country.
In his brochure, Geertson began by pointing out that there can be up to 1.6 ounces of weed seed in a 50-pound bag of alfalfa: “If Roundup is used for weed control in alfalfa seed fields, the weeds left in the field are resistant or will develop resistance to glyphosate. The resistant weeds will survive and their seeds will be harvested with the alfalfa seed” — and, Geertson believes, they will spread with every bag of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed sold. “This cropping system,” he wrote, “will accelerate the proliferation of glyphosate-resistant weeds.”