Farmer’s use of genetically modified soybeans grows into Supreme Court case
By Robert Barnes, Saturday, February 9, 3:12 PM
In SANDBORN, Ind. — Farmer Hugh Bowman hardly looks the part of a revolutionary who stands in the way of promising new biotech discoveries and threatens Monsanto’s pursuit of new products it says will “feed the world.”
“Hell’s fire,” said the 75-year-old self-described “eccentric old bachelor,” who farms 300 acres of land passed down from his father. Bowman rested in a recliner, boots off, the tag that once held his Foster Grant reading glasses to a drugstore rack still attached, a Monsanto gimme cap perched ironically on his balding head.
“I am less than a drop in the bucket.”
Yet Bowman’s unorthodox soybean farming techniques have landed him at the center of a national battle over genetically modified crops. His legal battle, now at the Supreme Court, raises questions about whether the right to patent living things extends to their progeny, and how companies that engage in cutting-edge research can recoup their investments.
What Bowman did was to take commodity grain from the local elevator, which is usually used for feed, and plant it. But that grain was mostly progeny of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready beans because that’s what most Indiana soybean farmers grow. Those soybeans are genetically modified to survive the weedkiller Roundup, and Monsanto claims that Bowman’s planting violated the company’s restrictions.
Those supporting Bowman hope the court uses the case, which is scheduled for oral arguments later this month, to hit the reset button on corporate domination of agribusiness and what they call Monsanto’s “legal assault” on farmers who don’t toe the line. Monsanto’s supporters say advances in health and environmental research are endangered.
And the case raises questions about the traditional role of farmers.
For instance: When a farmer grows Monsanto’s genetically modified soybean seeds, has he simply “used” the seed to create a crop to sell, or has he “made” untold replicas of Monsanto’s invention that remain subject to the company’s restrictions?
An adverse ruling, Monsanto warned the court in its brief, “would devastate innovation in biotechnology,” which involves “notoriously high research and development costs.”
“Inventors are unlikely to make such investments if they cannot prevent purchasers of living organisms containing their invention from using them to produce unlimited copies,” Monsanto states.
Bowman said Monsanto’s claim that its patent protection would be eviscerated should he win is “ridiculous.”
“Monsanto should not be able, just because they’ve got millions and millions of dollars to spend on legal fees, to try to terrify farmers into making them obey their agreements by massive force and threats,” Bowman said.
Blake Hurst farms in northwestern Missouri with his family, raising corn, soybeans and greenhouse crops.
We used to control weeds by cultivating. Three triangular shovels ran between each row of crops, rooting out weeds. We were left with weeds that had tap roots and tough stalks, which slid around the shovels. Sort of a forerunner of herbicide-resistant weeds, when you think about it. We’d cut the escapes with a hoe, which was my summer job.
We used to control weeds the old-fashioned way — with hoes.
Then, we had an outbreak of shattercane, a grass closely related to grain sorghum, which seemed to thrive on the crop protection chemicals we had at the time. Shattercane seeded so profusely that the cultivator was ineffective, and would grow back from below the ground after we cut it with a hoe. A plant that was hoe resistant.
Then, we had Roundup, which ended the threat from shattercane. But some of those wily weeds have evolved to defeat Roundup, and the war between man and weed goes on. No different than it has since the beginning of time.
We haven’t noticed a large problem with Roundup-resistant weeds on our farm because we only use Roundup every other year, and we use crop protection chemicals with different modes of action to lessen the chance of resistant weeds. We will no doubt see an increase in resistant weeds, and we’ll perhaps have to lengthen the time between applications of Roundup to maintain its effectiveness.
None of this is surprising. Of course weeds evolve, and certainly some farmers have overused a wonderful tool, just as doctors have over prescribed antibiotics. Being a technological optimist, I assume that weed scientists and crop geneticists are working overtime to solve the problem. Martial metaphors are disturbing to those who imagine farming as a pastoral stroll with Gaia, but we’re in an arms race with weeds, and thus has it always been.
We Knew It Was Coming
Michael Pollan, a contributing writer for The Times Magazine and the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author, most recently, of ”Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.”
What a surprise! Roundup-resistant weeds have shown up in fields that have been doused with Roundup! Shocking!
Genetically modified crops are not, as Monsanto suggests, a shiny new paradigm.
Actually, the surprise would have been if these weeds didn’t show up — the only thing in doubt was the timing. The theory of natural selection predicts that resistance will appear whenever you attempt to eradicate a pest or a bacteria using such a heavy-handed approach. And in fact the rise of Roundup resistant weeds was predicted by Marion Nestle in her 2003 book “Safe Food” and by the Union of Concerned Scientists. At the time, Monsanto rejected such predictions as “hypothetical.”
A few lessons may be drawn from this story:
1. A product like Roundup Ready soy is not, as Monsanto likes to claim, “sustainable.” Like any such industrial approach to an agronomic problem — like any pesticide or herbicide — this one is only temporary, and destroys the conditions on which it depends. Lucky for Monsanto, the effectiveness of Roundup lasted almost exactly as long as its patent protection.
2. Genetically modified crops are not, as Monsanto suggests, a shiny new paradigm. This is the same-old pesticide treadmill, in which the farmer gets hooked on a chemical fix that needs to be upgraded every few years as it loses its effectiveness.
3. Monocultures are inherently precarious. The very success of Roundup Ready crops have been their undoing, since so many acres were planted with the same seed, and doused with the same chemical, resistance came quickly. Resilience, and long-term sustainability, comes from diversifying fields, not planting them all to the same kind of seed.
By WILLIAM NEUMAN and ANDREW POLLACK
DYERSBURG, Tenn. — For 15 years, Eddie Anderson, a farmer, has been a strict adherent of no-till agriculture, an environmentally friendly technique that all but eliminates plowing to curb erosion and the harmful runoff of fertilizers and pesticides.
But not this year.
On a recent afternoon here, Mr. Anderson watched as tractors crisscrossed a rolling field — plowing and mixing herbicides into the soil to kill weeds where soybeans will soon be planted.
Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.
To fight them, Mr. Anderson and farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.