NYT 11/19/97--Monsanto's RR Cotton Bombs
Seeds of Discontent: Cotton Growers Say Strain Cuts Yields
By ALLEN R. MYERSON
CLARKSDALE, Miss. -- One year ago, Rodney Garrison was a true believer in a
breakthrough cotton strain that had been genetically engineered to resist
spraying with Monsanto Co.'s Roundup weed killer. "Roundup Ready cotton is
going to be as revolutionary to the cotton industry as the cotton picker," he
proclaimed under a grinning photograph in a corporate brochure.
Today, Garrison's ardor has turned to rancor. "See this?" he shouted over
drumming rain on a recent tour of Roundup Ready fields that he had sprayed
with Roundup, he held up a branch mottled with scars where closed green
cotton bolls had withered and dropped. A single white tuft clung to the
limb's end. "Six positions," he said, counting out to the end of the shoot.
"Five are missing." He sloshed a few steps down to some branches whose few
bolls were flattened or hooked. "See this one?" he asked. "Here's a deformed
boll -- a hawk-bill."
Monsanto calls the genetically engineered cotton it developed with Delta
and Pine Land Co. the most successful product introduction in farming history
-- likely to make cotton the nation's first crop in which genetically altered
varieties predominate. But here in the Mississippi Delta, the revolution has
produced enough casualties that officials are now warning farmers to hold off
until further testing proves the technology's reliability.
Garrison's disillusionment, shared by dozens of other farmers here who are
seeking perhaps millions of dollars in damages from the two companies,
exposes the risks of speeding new technology to a market like agriculture
where caution has ruled. In Texas, the companies face a lawsuit over the
performance of another genetically altered variety. And last week, Pioneer
Hi-Bred International Inc., the nation's largest producer of seed corn,
announced its refusal to add Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene to its corn,
saying Monsanto's proposed charges and restrictions outweigh the benefits for
farmers, a point Monsanto disputes.
These objections mark the strongest resistance yet from within the
agricultural camp. Environmentalists have protested for years that
bioengineering can have dangerous and unpredictable side effects; just last
week, a Greenpeace ship blocked the unloading of Monsanto's genetically
engineered soybeans in Amsterdam. Now, some who cheer corporate efforts to
control genetic destiny are, for purely business reasons, drawing back.
For Monsanto, the stakes could not be higher. The $9 billion company is
transforming itself from a chemical company into a biotechnology and "life
sciences" conglomerate, spending billions on research and acquisitions.
Monsanto has spliced its Roundup Ready gene into soybeans as well as cotton,
and had also improved cotton with a gene that makes the plants their own
Though the cloning of a sheep has been this year's splashiest
genetic-engineering feat, such tinkering in the muddy furrows of the nation's
farms is having a far greater impact on the commodities we consume. Almost
overnight, scientists are producing improvements in crops that used to take
years or decades of selection and breeding.
"We are just at the beginning of an industry transformation that in a few
years will be looked at as greater than the computer revolution," exulted
Robb Fraley, co-president for Monsanto's farming products.
Cotton is a natural target for Monsanto and its bioengineers. The crop is
to farming what leveraged buyouts are to corporate finance -- big money, high
risk, high reward, with scant margin for error. Without the new Monsanto
strains, farmers here must apply more than a dozen herbicides, insecticides
and other chemicals. The payoff from cutting back on these costly treatments
can be huge.
But so are the risks. If genetically engineered cotton produces poor
harvests, big losses can result. To finance the next year's crop, said one
farmer who did not want to be identified because of his close ties to
Monsanto, "I might have to go to my banker wearing kneepads."
Monsanto and Delta Pine, the world's largest producer of cotton seed,
portray the local discontent here as aberrations. They blame freak cold
weather, freak insect infestations and farmers' mistakes for the damage here
and in Texas last year. With the harvest not yet tallied, all but a few of
the growers will do well enough to invalidate any claims, the companies
"It's a very small, localized issue," said Fraley, the Monsanto executive.
"One can't focus on 60 farmers and ignore the benefits that this technology
has brought on 800,000 acres."
At this sort of talk, the genteel farmers of this area shake their graying
heads. They are no rebels. Until this year, the Mississippi Seed Arbitration
Council had only two damage claims since its creation in 1989. This year,
however, about 46 of the 200 farmers who planted Roundup Ready seed in
Mississippi have asked the council to have the companies cover their losses
on almost 30,000 acres. They say they lost as much as 40 percent of their
Roundup Ready cotton when it failed to resist spraying with Roundup. The
council only arbitrates, but farmers must stop there before going to court.
Though damage reports are concentrated here, state officials say complaints
have come from seven other states. Monsanto says scattered protests have come
only from another three.
Nor are the Mississippi protests the first. About 25 Texas farmers have
joined to sue the companies for losses from cotton bollworm damage on more
than 18,000 acres planted last year with genetically engineered Bollgard
varieties that produce their own insecticides. Monsanto blames unusually
heavy infestations and points to company pamphlets that say some spraying
might still be necessary. The farmers display other brochures making stronger
promises, including one that pictured a few worms and said, "You'll see these
in your cotton and that's OK. Don't spray."
Tom Kerby, a Delta Pine vice president, recounts five years of Bollgard
development and tests. But only after the widespread sale of Bollgard cotton
last year did the companies notice that its pollen had too little insecticide
to keep determined bollworms from feasting.
For state and federal cotton experts in Mississippi, the barren cotton
branches are an unwelcome vindication of their fears. While they usually test
new seed varieties for three years before giving their approval, which is
customary but not required, this time, they say, the companies hurried
Roundup Ready cotton to market without allowing them to test it.
Bill Meredith, a geneticist and research manager for the U.S. Agriculture
Department in Stoneville, Miss., asked for a single pound of seed last year,
enough for just a tenth of one acre. The companies said they could not spare
that much, he recalled, even though farmers chosen by the companies planted
Roundup Ready cotton on thousands of acres.
The result has been a rare breakdown in the usually cordial relations
between agribusiness and government. "We weren't able to find out what was
going on," Meredith said. "These new varieties and new technologies are going
out with less evaluation than they had in the past with traditional
Meredith publicly suggested that the companies recall their seed, prompting
Delta Pine to ask his bosses to shut him up. Roger Malkin, Delta Pine's
chairman, says that one of Meredith's supervisors apologized; Meredith says a
manager merely asked him to tone his comments down.
Even the companies' partisans talk of friends who have suffered crop damage
or spent unexpected sums on pest control. "We are used to having things
brought to us that are ready to go," said Emery D. Skelton, a farmer chosen
by Delta Pine to recount his own productive experience. "Maybe this wasn't
ready to go."
The companies retort that far from shifting the risks and expense of
testing to farmers, they carried out thorough research and won all the
necessary federal approvals. Roundup is not to blame for deformed bolls, only
for some that fell, they add.
Farmers, squeezed by rising pesticide costs and shrinking federal
subsidies, acknowledge their desperation. "We're embracing anything that we
can find that will lower our costs," said Herbert Huddleston, a local grower
who planted only Roundup Ready cotton this year. "We were begging them for
Kerby of Delta Pine adds that the companies could not afford a longer wait
to recover their heavy research and development costs, which included flying
seed to Argentina and South Africa to cram as many as three growing seasons
into a single year. "We have a lot of money tied up," he said.
In the marketplace, genetically engineered cotton is a galloping success,
rising from 1.8 million acres last year to about 3 million this year and a
projected 5 million to 6 million next year. By 1999, Fraley of Monsanto
expects more than half the nation's 14 million acres of cotton to have the
company's potent genes.
And Monsanto is only beginning. Next will come a stronger variety of
insect-resistant cotton in 1999, then cotton that can protect itself from
boll weevils, and in 2003 or sometime after, cotton that is naturally
colored, without chemical dyes. By then, the company also hopes to have
biologically engineered, supersweet and disease-resistant strawberries, as
well as plants that can produce biodegradable plastics.
That glorious future for Monsanto is little consolation to Garrison and his
ruined cotton field, the farmer who recently toured his ruined cotton field.
In July, he noticed his plants were shedding their bolls. In the following
weeks, as other farmers saw similar losses, the fields were swarming with
Monsanto and Delta Pine executives, state and federal officials, researchers,
consultants and lawyers for both sides. "If I could charge per head, I'd be
all right," Garrison said.
How many farmers the companies compensate could depend on whether the state
compares cotton yields to historic averages or to this year's bumper crop.
The companies also plan to include stronger cautions on their seed bags.
Some Mississippi officials ask whether tougher rules are needed to make sure
the new, genetically engineered products work under all local conditions. In
the meantime, Robert McCarty, the state Agriculture and Commerce Department's
chief regulator, tells farmers to watch out.
"I sure couldn't recommend they plant one of these varieties and take that
kind of risk," McCarty said, "unless someone could assure them they wouldn't
have the kind of problems we had in 1997."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times