Betting the farm

Monsanto's knocking, will Montana open the door?



Jon Tester doesn’t really mind being the Democratic Senate Minority leader in the Montana Legislature, but his first love is farming his land near Big Sandy. As a man whose bucolic roots go back at least five generations, Tester’s enthusiasm for Montana agriculture may well be rooted in his genes. “Montana grows some of the world’s finest grain. The climate, the soil, the dryness—people from around the world look for varieties grown here,” says Tester with more than a hint of pride.

Lately though, someone’s been looking to plant copy-righted genes in Montana’s Elysian fields. Monsanto, the controversial agribusiness giant, has completed applications for commercial legalization in both Canada and the U.S. of its genetically modified (GM) RoundUp Ready wheat seed. Already, the firm has contracted with several western land-grant colleges—including Montana State in Bozeman—to breed wheat that expresses a gene resistant to the herbicide RoundUp.

Tester and others view the company’s overtures toward Montana wheat growers as another step in the erosion of farmer autonomy, as well as a huge risk for the $400 million-a-year wheat business in Montana. “Three companies control 80 percent of the world’s grain,” Tester warns. “We already don’t control our inputs; we don’t control any of the marketing. Make no mistake about it, this is Monsanto’s bid to control the seed. And if they get that, we’ll be nothing more than serfs.”

Tester and a coalition of concerned ag scientists and activists backed four bills in this year’s legislative session addressing Monsanto. Each would have restricted the company’s access to the state’s wheat fields in different ways. All except Tester’s own bill, which is simply a joint resolution declaring that Montana will not tolerate economic losses at the hands of biotech companies, were killed in committee.

Two mainstream farm groups, the Montana Grain Growers Association (MGGA) and the Montana Farm Bureau, are supportive of GM technology and were active in the bills’ defeat. Their rationale is that growers must embrace GM technology to remain competitive in a global market. “We supported the joint resolution, but we felt the other bills sent a message that said Montana wasn’t open for business. The technology is going to go forward,” predicts Richard Owen of the MGGA. “The only question is the time line, which customers, and which growers.”

Monsanto spokesperson Shannon Troughton concurs. She points to a study by the National Center for Agricultural Policy, a non-profit subsidized by agribusiness and ag-chem firms, that concludes existing biotech commodities are already saving farmers money and increasing yields. Troughton also notes that Egypt recently indicated it might consider buying GM wheat.

While Monsanto has garnered support in agribusiness circles, its operation looks to many investors to be an increasingly unstable house of cards. Growing consumer opposition to GM products world-wide, protracted legal battles, and an anemic economy contributed to losses of $175 million in the first three quarters of 2002, prompting a shuffle in Monsanto’s corporate leadership.

Underlying the uncertain future of this complex multinational is a very basic business problem: No one wants to buy their stuff. The European Union refuses to buy American-grown GM corn or soy, and a majority of the world’s nations harbor similar misgivings. This hurts American farmers: According to the U.S. Corn Growers Association, the loss of the European market has cost American farmers the sale of more than 500 million bushels of corn and $850 million in lost farm revenue.

Then there are the legal questions. Currently, Monsanto sues farmers who the company claims are violating the copyright agreement that goes along with buying Monsanto seeds, generating skepticism towards a business model in which a company drags its customers to court as a means of ensuring profit. Additionally, the company recently lost a $42.8 million judgment over PCB pollution in Alabama. Monsanto created a subsidiary called Solutia to absorb liability costs in the case.

All this makes for a tough row to hoe in convincing wary wheat growers that RoundUp Ready wheat is a wise investment. Cliff Bradley, a Missoula molecular biologist who has worked for more than 20 years as an agricultural scientist, explains that the nickels or dimes farmers might save producing a bushel of wheat in the name of global competitiveness are poor incentives for going GM. Bradley notes that emerging producers in South America and Asia often can grow wheat for less than half what it costs a Montana farmer. While Monsanto promises higher yields and lower input costs for Montana growers, the savings may not be significant enough to make them competitive with producers who are so much cheaper. “The market doesn’t exist for what Monsanto is offering,” Bradley claims. “There isn’t a single buyer of Montana wheat who at this point has said they will touch GM wheat. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Japan has stated unequivocally they will seek other markets to purchase grain rather than buy GM wheat.”

The Monsanto wheat test plots currently germinating on state lands are not open to the public. A provision of federal law allows Monsanto to withhold information about the location and data collected from these sites, ostensibly to protect the company from saboteurs. Dr. Luther Talbert, the state’s wheat breeder facilitating the Monsanto project, declines even to reveal how much Monsanto is paying MSU, saying only that “It’s not in the millions.”

Talbert also thinks that grower and consumer fears about GM foods are overstated, though he concedes the biggest problem is the lack of a market for GM wheat. “I just don’t hear much anymore that GM food is dangerous to people. We’ve been eating this stuff for 7 or 8 years and nothing bad has happened yet,” he says.

Fellow scientist Bradley disagrees, citing a growing body of evidence that indicates genetically modified crops could produce disastrous and unintended consequences for human health, and further narrow a dangerously thin genetic base in commercial agriculture. “This is not an exact science by any means,” Bradley points out. “Corporations are exploiting it for quick profit before we really know what the long-term effects will be.”

Tester, whose passion for a root- and soil-bound farm life far exceeds his passion for politics or science, doesn’t bother to mince words about the GM seed already growing in his backyard. “I realize we all have to make a living,” he concedes. “But I think Luther has sold his soul.”

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