Cow feed from Planet 9

  • John Mecklin


In Hollywood science fiction, genetic modification leads to monsters with extensible jaws and rampaging epidemics that threaten mankind’s existence. In real-world science fact, altered DNA usually expresses itself more mundanely. Until recently, for instance, it was hard to think of a reason to fear a pasture. But as Matt Jenkins found while reporting this issue’s cover story, “Brave New Hay,” neighbors in Idaho are fighting a pitched battle in the genetic-engineering wars, and alfalfa’s at ground zero.

The alfalfa controversy is part of a complicated process that made its way into the public consciousness a little more than a decade ago. In the mid-1990s, the Monsanto Co., a multinational agriculture and biotechnology giant, introduced the first in a series of crops that had been genetically altered to be resistant to Roundup, the company’s widely used herbicide. With Roundup Ready soybeans, corn, cotton and, now, alfalfa, Monsanto offers farmers and ranchers an alluring opportunity. They can spray, say, an alfalfa field with herbicide; the weeds in the field quickly die, but the alfalfa doesn’t. There’s no need for tilling, and the savings in terms of cost and time are significant.

Because it involves the explicit manipulation of life, genetic engineering tends to polarize, eliciting responses of religious certitude. There are perfectly reasonable people who think it wrong, morally, for humans to tinker with the DNA of any living organism. Leaders in the biotechnology industry, on the other hand, see a world in which genetic modification reduces hunger, cures disease and extends human life.

Between these two poles, farmers near Nampa, Idaho, are fighting out the real-world implications of alfalfa that lives happily after a rousing dousing with weed killer, but that may be spreading its Roundup-resistant gene to nearby “natural” alfalfa fields, whose owners want no part of GM cow feed. There is some evidence that repeated spraying of Roundup Ready crops is producing herbicide-resistant “frankenweeds.” There is a lot of fear of unintended consequences down the road. The battle has gone to the courts, and its ultimate outcome has implications for the biotech and agribusiness industries across the country (not to mention neighborly relations in the West).

I have no reflexive moral aversion to genetically modified agricultural products. The way I see it, man has genetically engineered his farm plants and animals for hundreds of years via selective breeding, mostly for the better. Clearly, though, the biotech revolution has given us the ability to alter life forms quickly and radically. Just as clearly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has an over-lenient approach to the regulation of GM farm products.

The crops in your neighbor’s field may not jump up and bite you tomorrow. But in an age when even localized changes to the natural world require full environmental impact statements, it seems reasonable that the federal government require an EIS (at the least) before any GM crop or other organism is released, generally, into the environment. When scientists change the script in which the story of life is written, society has the right — and obligation — to edit stringently, in the service of happy endings.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Dec 11, 2007 11:54 AM

Hello,  just borrowed some "High Country News" papers from a friend to see if I wanted to get a subscription.  In the June 11, 2007, there was a long article about GMO's that I was very interested in.  I am a lay person who has read books about this issue as I am concerned about my food and the food supply,  and have been following this saga for about 10 years.   Then, I read the Editor's note and I really FREAKED.  "The way I see it, man has genetically engineered his farm plants and animals for hundreds of years via selective breeding, mostly for the better."  That is so inaccurate, totally inappropriate, so misinformed and so offensive to me AND a common incorrect argument in favor of GMO's.  Do you think a flounder gene in a strawberry is "selective breeding"?  Are you guys insane over there? While I am happy you printed the article and the public is finally maybe starting to wake up to this issue (even though no labeling is legal or used so people don't even know what they are eating) and the fact that they are human guinea pigs, this is so offensive YOUR editor said this; he OBVIOUSLY knew NOTHING  about this issue.
    Was there a retraction or a correction printed in subsequent issues?
    I will never consider getting your paper if there is not or was not. I never saw the following issue.
Please respond asap.
    I know I am pretty fired up on this end but I feel that was a HUGE mistake and misjudgment and needs to be addressed.
Thank you.
Julie C. Meadows

Durango, Colo.