The opening paragraphs of this Washington Post story on Sunday sound more like a pitch for a science-fiction movie:
For plants designed in a lab a little more than a decade ago, they’ve come a long way: Today, the vast majority of the nation’s two primary crops grow from seeds genetically altered according to Monsanto company patents.
Ninety-three percent of soybeans. Eighty percent of corn.
The seeds represent “probably the most revolutionary event in grain crops over the last 30 years,” said Geno Lowe, a Salisbury, Md., soybean farmer.
From there, the story goes on to what it sees as the important issue — Monsanto is steadily raising the prices of the seeds, and the Obama administration is considering antitrust actions.
But me, I’m still stuck on this 80-90% of seeds being genetically altered based on a single company’s patents. And it gets even more disturbing when you learn the reason why these seeds dominate the market:
The modified plants can stand up to the powerful herbicide glyphosate, best known commercially as Roundup, allowing them to use the weedkiller not just before planting but also after the crops have come up.
And who makes Roundup? Why, Monsanto, of course!
Before it jumped into biotechnology, Monsanto was already one of the nation’s largest chemical companies and had patented glyphosate, bringing it to market as Roundup in the ’70s.
The product kills just about all weeds, and for farmers it served as a wonderfully effective herbicide. Instead of tilling the earth, they could simply blanket it with Roundup. . . .
If there was a practical drawback with Roundup, it was that it couldn’t be used after planting: Applying Roundup at that point would kill the crops, too.
But where there’s science and profit involved, there’s always a solution:
Monsanto was producing Roundup at a plant in Luling, La., and the water and sludge in the waste ponds around the plant were exposed to the chemical. . . . After bacteria discovered in the pond sludge proved resistant to the chemical, scientists isolated the gene that gave the bacteria Roundup tolerance and placed that gene, known as CPS4, into soybeans, then corn.
The resulting plants, called “Roundup Ready,” represented a billion-dollar breakthrough and, as Monsanto sees it, a just reward for its $1.5 billion investment in biotech research.
Got that? A chemical company develops a near-monopoly on the weedkiller market… and before too long, it’s an agriculture company with a near-monopoly on corn and soybeans that are compatible with the weedkiller. And the only problem anyone seems to have with it would be if Monsanto gets a little too greedy in its pricing.
“Everybody likes Roundup Ready,” said William Layton, a grain farmer on the Eastern Shore. “Maybe it costs a little more than we like. But everybody’s going to keep using it.“
It’s not hard for me to imagine this going horribly, catastrophically wrong at some point. And I don’t even read that much science fiction.