Rounding Up Hunters
By PETER DOWNS
It looks like the end is near for the hunting of wild game birds in the
Midwest. Predictions are the birds soon will start to disappear. And the
culprit won't be overhunting, but biotechnology.
Scientists at the Monsanto Company are hard at work on the technology to
establish crop uniformity, wiping out the weeds that support many types
of wild game. They have perfected it for corn, soybeans and cotton, and
they have programs underway to extend the technology to a dozen other crops.
The core of Monsanto's technology is glyphosate, a patented 20-plus year
old herbicide marketed under the trade name Roundup. Glyphosate is the atomic
bomb of herbicides: it kills everything. It is the best-selling herbicide
ever invented, and a cash cow for the company, accounting for 30% of Monsanto's
Facing the expiration of its patents, the company looked for some way to
tie farmers to its herbicide so they couldn't stray to a potential generic
The solution was to engineer crops that could withstand Roundup. That had
an added benefit for the company: it let farmers use more of the herbicide
each season, since they could keep spraying it to kill weeds even after
their crops had begun to sprout.
The benefit for Monsanto comes with a cost, however, a cost to the environment.
"We already have a very simplified environment in the agricultural
heartland, but it is still weedy enough to support some wildlife,"
said Dr. Orley "Chip" Taylor, a biologist at the University of
Kansas. "If we eliminate weeds, it will not support even this limited
diversity of wildlife."
Taylor thinks hunters will be the first to cry foul. "If [Monsanto]
comes up with Roundup-resistant mill and sorghum, they will take all the
weeds out of the system that support game birds," he said. "All
you will have to do is listen to the cries of the hunters who can't find
pheasant or quail" to know that diversity in the environment is collapsing.
Other species will be affected, too. Taylor, who also is director of the
Monarch Project, a collaborative U.S.-Canadian research project on Monarch
butterflies, said Roundup-resistant corn and soybeans already pose a threat
to that butterfly.
"We have just shown that 50 percent of the Monarchs that arrive in
Mexico arrive from the agricultural heartland of the U.S.," he said.
Monarchs feed off of milkweed, which grows in corn and soybean fields. The
eradication of milkweed is one of the main marketing pegs for Roundup resistant
corn and soybeans.
Yet evidence suggests "there is not enough milkweed in pastures and
wild areas to support the number of Monarchs we see," said Taylor.
He is seeking funding to definitely determine where Monarchs feed, before
farmers plant so many acres in Roundup-resistant seeds that it decimates
the butterfly population.
The British government's wildlife advisor, English Nature, has similar concerns.
It wants to find out if more effective weed killing will decimate the song
bird population before the herbicide resistance technology floods the marketplace.
Monsanto, however, isn't waiting. Its quest for biouniformity doesn't stop
at the field's edge. In April the company announced it had agreements with
three lumber companies to develop Roundup resistant trees, so they could
wipe away weeds and noneconomic trees from forest floors. The companies
are International Paper Co., Westvaco, and Fletcher Challenge Group of New
Such research conjures up the image of a countryside that resembles a well
manicured suburban lawn: no weeds or brush, but also no birds or wild game.
Is such a countryside really desirable, let alone sustainable?
Peter Downs is a freelance writer based in St. Louis
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