In fact, evidence is accumulating that the older Roundup Ready crops such as soybeans and cotton — and the increased use of Roundup that has accompanied them — have subjected weeds to such intense selective pressure that they, like the sludge-dwelling bacteria from which Monsanto’s scientists first extracted the Roundup-resistant gene, have become resistant to the herbicide. Roundup-resistant horseweed has appeared in Delaware and Tennessee; Roundup-resistant ragweed in Missouri; and Roundup-resistant ryegrass in California. Farmers are increasingly being forced to turn to older, more potent herbicides to control weeds — but even those chemicals sometimes offer little relief. In some parts of Georgia, where Roundup Ready cotton is widely grown, farmers have been reduced to pulling Roundup-resistant Palmer amaranth — a weed so tough that it can damage mechanized cotton harvesters — by hand.
For the farmers in Idaho, weed resistance is only one worry. Some local alfalfa growers are also concerned about the agricultural equivalent of secondhand smoke: genetic contamination when bees transfer pollen between genetically modified and conventional varieties of the plant. A bee, says Jim Briggs, another Nampa-area farmer who grows conventional alfalfa seed, is “an independent beast of Mother Nature that you can’t control. They can go anywhere and potentially contaminate the whole industry.” Transgenic contamination is of particular concern for organic farmers, who have successfully argued that the national organic standards should exclude genetically modified crops.
In Idaho, Forage Genetics and seed growers agreed to separate Roundup Ready seed fields from conventional ones by at least 900 feet, to minimize the transmission of pollen by leafcutter bees. Yet alkali bees can fly as far as one mile and honeybees as far as three; freak weather such as thunderstorm downbursts can blow bees even farther afield. There is already evidence that the 900-foot isolation distances aren’t enough. In fact, at least one conventional seed company claims that its seed became contaminated even before Roundup Ready alfalfa was deregulated.
Woodland, Calif.-based Cal/West Seeds says it discovered the Roundup Ready gene in conventional alfalfa seed that a farmer in Wyoming was growing for the company in early 2005, after one of Forage Genetics’ seed growers planted Roundup Ready alfalfa less than 200 feet away. The same year, Cal/West claims to have found contamination in seed grown in California and Washington. Last year, another company, Dairyland Seed, says it found Roundup Ready contamination in conventional seed that farmers were growing for it in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. As a result, several seed companies in Idaho now use a kit similar to a home pregnancy test to test every lot of seed that they buy.
“This business of (Forage Genetics) going right into every major alfalfa seed-producing area and getting some farmer to grow (Roundup Ready alfalfa seed) … They knew it, they knew what they were doing: They were just trying to quickly contaminate the whole countryside with it,” says Phil Geertson. “There are a lot of seed growers that are worried that it’s going to destroy their business, and that Forage Genetics will be the only game in town.”
In February of last year, Geertson and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety fought back with a lawsuit against the USDA. They claimed that Roundup Ready alfalfa could contaminate conventional and organic alfalfa farmers’ fields and prevent them from selling their crops; that it could create Roundup-resistant “superweeds”; and that the Department of Agriculture had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not conducting a full environmental impact statement before it deregulated the crop in 2005.
This Feb. 13, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer reversed the USDA’s decision to approve Roundup Ready alfalfa for commercial planting. Because of “the possibility that the deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa will degrade the human environment by eliminating a farmer’s choice to grow non-genetically engineered alfalfa and a consumer’s choice to consume such food,” Breyer ruled that the Department of Agriculture must complete a full environmental impact statement before it can revisit the question of whether to deregulate the crop. Never before has such a thorough evaluation been required of a genetically modified crop.
Breyer also put a temporary injunction on the sale of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed, leaving pallets of the purple-dyed seed sitting on dealers’ loading docks with stop-sale notices stuck to them. It could take two years for the USDA to complete the environmental impact statement. What will happen in the meantime?
Late in April, the parties to the case again convened before Judge Breyer in an immaculate wood-paneled courtroom 19 floors above downtown San Francisco. Monsanto had made it clear that much was at stake if Breyer kept the injunction on planting Roundup Ready alfalfa in place while the government completed its environmental impact statement. The company had anticipated the amount of acreage planted in Roundup Ready alfalfa to grow from 220,000 acres to 570,000 this year, then to 1.1 million acres next year.
Following Breyer’s initial ruling, Monsanto and Forage Genetics had seized on the idea of “coexistence” between genetically modified, conventional and organic crops. The two companies sent a letter to alfalfa growers asking them to write testimonials about “the benefits of having Roundup Ready alfalfa as a choice for farmers,” and enclosed a response form with space for farmers to describe “HOW I COEXIST.” In the hearing before Breyer, the companies’ attorneys argued that if he allowed the USDA to impose a set of six conditions on growers — including mandatory isolation distances to minimize pollen flow, requirements that alfalfa be harvested before more than a small percentage of it blooms, and orders that any harvesting equipment that comes into contact with Roundup Ready alfalfa be cleaned to keep the seed from conventional fields — farmers could continue planting Roundup Ready alfalfa without contaminating their conventional and organic neighbors.
But from his vantage behind the bench, Breyer, wearing a gold bow tie vaguely suggestive of Orville Reden-bacher, was plainly dubious about the plea to allow farmers to plant more Roundup Ready alfalfa while the case continued. Was there a single precedent, he asked the two companies’ attorneys, in which a court had allowed “an increase in the exposure or use of an item under investigation?” The question, it quickly became clear, was rhetorical. On May 3, Breyer ruled that the injunction on the sale and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa will remain in place until the USDA completes its environmental impact statement.
Monsanto is considering whether to appeal the ruling. Still, it is clear that the real world of farming is considerably messier than one that the company’s attorneys described in Breyer’s courtroom. The 3,000-odd farmers who, like Paul Rasgorshek, have already planted Roundup Ready alfalfa can continue growing the crop. But if the forthcoming environmental impact statement does not justify the release of Roundup Ready alfalfa, putting the genie back in the bottle will be considerably harder than, say, recalling a defective automobile.