RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Bugs, Biotech Salesmen Pester Farmers

As 2012 is dawning, the news for the planet has been bad. No, I’m not talking about the Aztec calendar, Mitt Romney or backward sunspots. I’m serious, now. The problem’s with genetic engineering. The first genetically engineered (GE) seeds, also called “transgenic,” or “genetically modified (GMO),” or “biotech,” were altered so that the seeds would resist a dousing of Roundup, or glyphosate.

At the time, glyphosate killed almost every green thing, and that was the point. A farmer could pull a tank of glyphosate across the field, kill everything, and plant a resistant seed that would pop up green and happy after its bath in poison. It was resistant because the wizards at Monsanto had introduced genes that resisted the poison. They were acting on the theory is that, when the farmer plants an expensive seed, he doesn’t want competition for the costly nutrients he’s putting on the ground.

The theory was a good one and University Extension agents rushed to endorse the new technology. Farmers bought and Monsanto introduced one version after another. Pretty soon there were corn seeds containing Bt, a bacteria that kills rootworm, and next came other Bt crops.

In the last couple of years, seed companies have started to cross the GMOs, so that they can market “stacked” seeds with, for example, resistance to glyphosate and poisons that kill insects.

These new combinations have caught on, because within a few years of planting a seed with a new trait, the weeds and bugs have caught up. Now farmers cope with glyphosate-resistant ragweed, waterhemp, horseweed, Johnson grass, and pigweed. And, pests like corn rootworm and cotton bollworm have become resistant to the insecticide genetically inserted into those crops. Farmers are coming to terms with the idea that these innovations don’t work and that they’ll need to go back to old methods — hoeing the fields, pulling weeds, or simply accepting that weeds are part of nature’s plan.

The situation doesn’t particularly upset Monsanto scientists, because for every problem they have a chance to dream up a new solution. So they are now playing with the insertion of new resistant genes that survive new chemicals that will be poured onto the fields.

Specifically, the old herbicide 2,4D, abandoned in grandpa’s time because it was determined as too dangerous, will be enjoying a comeback as USDA sets up to approve crops that resist it.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition summed it up: “The development of GM crops that are resistant to persistent, toxic pesticides lays to rest one of original lies told about GE crops – that their widespread use would lead to the end of toxic pesticides like 2,4-D that have been associated with the development of Parkinson’s disease and other medical disorders in humans and animals.”

As one that attended the first GMO introductory meetings held by University of Missouri Extension, I remember that farmers knew this would happen. They specifically asked about weed and pest resistance to chemicals when the chemicals were in constant use. “We’re working on that,” said the extension agents.

But the industry knew that it didn’t matter if the technologies worked, whether we’re talking about seeds or CAFOs. What they were after had nothing to do with efficiency or feeding the hungry. Instead, the big win was the chance to patent seeds, to force farmers to sell off their animals, to create huge problems that could only be solved with huge amounts of capital. Industry’s plan was, in short, to take over agriculture and food so that farmers were forced off the land. A few resisted and saved their non-GMO seeds. But when their crops became cross-pollinated with the GMO pollen, which is carried on the wind or by pollinators like bees, Monsanto has a new plan: lawsuits for gene piracy.

Between 1997 and 2010, Monsanto filed suits against farmers in 27 states and settled hundreds more when the farmers agreed to pay large fines. So farmers are becoming afraid to find alternatives. And that means that consumers only have one way to feed themselves: You’ll be buying your food from industry.

If you ask Monsanto why we need these seeds, they’ll say something like, “we need to feed a hungry planet,” which sounds altruistic, and, indeed, there is hunger in every American county and every nation in the world. The U.N. World Food Programme estimates there are nearly a billion hungry people, with the largest concentrations in Africa and Asia.

But consumers are catching on. The industry’s plan isn’t about feeding people. It’s about consolidating the industry. On Jan. 31, there was a “citizen’s assembly in support of family farmers vs. Monsanto” as the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association moves forward with a suit.

And you, dear reader, know there are other ways to support family farmers. Visit the farmers’ market. Ask where your food comes from and how it’s raised. Buy local.

Margot McMillen farms and teaches English in Fulton, Mo. You can email her at See

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2012

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