Longform

How Monsanto Is Terrifying the Farming World

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Morton has to worry about his fields because GM crops have perverted long-standing property law. Organic farmers are responsible for protecting their farms from contamination, since courts have consistently refused to hold GM growers liable.

Kansas farmer Bryce Stephens had to stop growing organic corn and soybeans for fear of contamination and has 30-foot buffer crops to protect his organic wheat. (Wheat pollen doesn't travel far.)

"Monsanto and the biotechs need to respect traditional property rights and need to keep their pollution on their side of the fence," says Maine farmer Jim Gerritsen. "If it was anything but agriculture, nobody would question it. If I decided to spray my house purple and I sprayed on a day that was windy and my purple paint drifted onto your house and contaminated your siding and shingles, there isn't a court in the nation that wouldn't in two minutes find me guilty of irresponsibly damaging your property. But when it comes to agriculture, all of a sudden the tables are turned."

Contamination isn't just about boutique organic brands. It maims U.S. exports too.

Take Bayer, which grew experimental, GM rice — that was unapproved for cultivation and for human consumption — at test plots around Louisiana State University for just one year. Within five years, these test plots had contaminated 30 percent of U.S. rice acreage. No one's certain how it happened, but Bayer's rice was found as far away as Central America and Africa.

Within days of the USDA announcement that this untested GM rice had gotten loose, rice futures lost $150 million in value, while U.S. rice exports dropped by 20 percent during the next year. And Bayer ended up paying farmers $750 million in damages.

Last month brought another hit. A Monsanto test of GM wheat mysteriously contaminated an Oregon farm eight years after the test was shut down. Japan and South Korea immediately halted imports of U.S. soft white wheat — a particularly harsh pill for the Japanese, who have used our white wheat in almost all cakes and confectionary since the 1960s.

Monsanto's response? It's blaming the whole mess on eco-terrorists.


Just Label It

Trish Sheldon moved to Florida in 2001, but the bubbly blond still exudes a cool, friendly California air. In 2010, she started a state chapter of Millions Against Monsanto, then in 2011 founded a group called GMO-Free Florida to raise awareness of the risks of GMOs and push for mandatory labeling initiatives.

With Monsanto seeds covering more than 40 percent of America's crop acres (a March study found that 86 percent of corn, 88 percent of cotton, and 93 percent of soybeans grown here are of a GM variety) and the agri-giant making an expected $7.65 billion profit this year, it's doubtful the company will go away anytime soon. But as consumers become more aware of the sinister problems lurking in the food chain, activists in many states are pushing for laws that would require foods with GM ingredients to be labeled, much as foods with trans fats are.

More than 23 right-to-know groups have since popped up throughout Florida especially after California's push for mandatory labeling legislation, called Proposition 37, failed last year. Chemical companies defeated the initiative, thanks to a $46 million publicity campaign full of deceptive statements.

"Even though there were lies and deceit by the biotech industry, that was the catalyst," Sheldon says. "People were so pissed off that it failed [and] we started gaining steam." This May, during a global day of action, more than 2 million protesters attended rallies in more than 400 cities across 52 countries. In Miami, organizers lost count when protesters topped 1,300.

"If they're going to allow the American people to be lab rats in an experiment, could they at least know where it is from so they can decide whether they want to participate or not?" asks Lance Harvell, a Republican state representative from Maine who sponsored a GM labeling law this year. "If the FDA isn't going to do their job, it's time we stepped in."

Maine is just the second state (nine days after Connecticut) to pass such a law. When Vermont raised the issue a year ago, a Monsanto official indicated the company might sue. So the new laws in both Maine and Connecticut won't take effect until other states pass similar legislation so they can share defense costs.

In Florida, state Sen. Maria Lorts Sachs and House Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel-Vasilinda have sponsored similar bills — but neither version made it to committee. Both intend to revise and resubmit bills in the next legislative session, in January 2014.

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Chris Parker
Contact: Chris Parker