RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Usual Suspects Beat Roundup

A few weeks ago, my community radio partner arrived at the station with allergies. Runny nose, runny eyes, and the inability to pronounce “m” and “n.” So, when she pronounced the word farm, which is a key word in our dictionary of pronunciations, it came out “farb.”

Ragweed. The devil’s own plant, and we had a lot of it this year. Thanks to the geniuses at Monsanto, Missouri now has both common and giant ragweed immune to Roundup, the most powerful herbicide on the planet. And we have other noxious weeds immune to Roundup: marestail, waterhemp and pigweed. These weeds are all common on prairie-type soils, the same soils where Roundup-resistant crops have taken over the farm fields where we raise corn, soybeans and wheat, three ingredients in almost any American meal.

As crops, Monsanto engineered soybeans and corn to resist the herbicide. The plants pop up green and spunky but all the weeds are dead after the farmer sprays a tank of Roundup on a field. The idea is to create monocultures where nothing competes with the crops for nutrients, which are also sprayed on the fields. The clean crops are also easier to harvest, with no nuisance plants getting into the equipment.

This clean monocrop probably worked fine for a couple of seasons of testing under the close eyes of university professors, but Research and Development science doesn’t wait for longterm results. Quick sales, that’s the ticket, and the same monomania for clean fields kept the scientists from asking if the seeds were safe to eat, safe for livestock, safe to replant. If they asked, the results were never published. There’s no money in caution.

Now that farmers have actually used Roundup-Ready beans for more than 10 years, some side effects are evident. More glyphosate is being used, more trips across the field. And, now, the resistant weeds.

From the first introduction of Roundup-Ready soybeans farmers knew we would have resistant weeds. We didn’t know how it would happen, and it’s still somewhat of a mystery. Do the resistant genes jump from one species to another in pollination? Or do a few weeds survive the spray and spawn resistant offspring?

Over the years, more and more crops have been genetically altered by including genes in the plant that resist Roundup. Cotton has been added to Monsanto’s empire, meaning that if you’re trying to go “nonsanto” you’ll need to avoid clothes. They have altered the genes of rice, alfalfa and salmon, although those are not being raised commercially. We hope.

And USDA? When it comes to Monsanto, the government regulators are at their beck and call. A few months ago, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) permitted immediate planting of a new GMO crop — sugar beets grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Fearing that the sugar beets would cross-pollinate with normal sugar beets and even with other crops like Swiss chard, not to mention a whole new ecosystem of weeds, there was a court order to stop the approval. The mainstream media, having little nutritional background and with inches to ink, are spreading the rumor that sugar from beets is healthier than high fructose sugar from corn but, hey! Sugar is sugar. Replacing the obscene amounts of corn sugar in soft drinks with an equally obscene amount of beet sugar won’t make kids skinny. It could, however, lead to a shortage of sugar beets in the next planting cycle.

Trouble is, APHIS deregulated GMO sugar beets without assessing the crop’s environmental impacts. This illegal permit was desperately desired by Monsanto, and would have represented a win after the Supreme Court’s rejection of the plea to allow planting of GMO alfalfa, a crop that would have ruined exports of another US crop.

APHIS ignored the impacts because they knew the impacts would be bad. “The Court has already found that the approval of this engineered crop was illegal,” said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety. “Rather than complying with the court’s order, the USDA is once again acting as a rogue agency in illegally allowing these crops to be planted without the required hard look at their environmental and economic dangers.” 

Almost as bad as ignoring due process, economic impacts and environmental review, APHIS should be condemned for sneakiness. There was no public notice or comment period on this permit, reminding GMO-watchers of an earlier attempt to sneak GMO rice into southern Missouri where it could ruin potential rice exports and, perhaps worse, sales of rice to St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch for its beer.

APHIS’s main defense, so far, has been that the permit allowed the planting of the seed but not the flowering of the plants and production of seed.

Nice try, APHIS, but no. Even if the point of the crop was to produce beets rather than seed, flowers happen.

A coalition of organizations has filed a new suit, asking for a restraining order and injunction against the planting. In the words of Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff: “APHIS’s issuance of these permits blatantly violates well established law and flouts the Court’s recent rulings. It has become Monsanto’s puppet.”

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2010

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