by PAUL K. HAEDER & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & ashington's organics industry -- totaling $400 million in sales last year -- is under threat. Ironically, that threat comes from a company started by an immigrant a century ago to fight the German monopoly on saccharine. Unfortunately, Monsanto is becoming a household name again -- for the wrong reasons. Vanity Fair's April 2008 article, "Harvest of Fear," has publicized the company's history of thuggery against individual farmers and an entire industry.
For the Evergreen State, this is a fight that will go to the mat, pitting common sense and farming based on carrying capacity against a company that got the Supreme Court in 1980, in a 5-4 decision, to allow for patenting rights on the very staff of life -- seeds.
This was sacrosanct in both the legal world and within the philosophy of agronomy -- no one should be allowed to patent life. Monsanto currently owns 675 patents on "biotechnology innovations" -- many call them "franken-crops." Less than 30 years after the decision to patent life, Monsanto controls 90 percent of the global genetically modified (GM) seed market.
Monsanto began under the tutelage of a feisty Irishman who produced batches of saccharine and then expanded into caffeine, sedatives, laxatives and vanillin. Since the United States was cut off from European chemicals during World War I, Monsanto positioned itself to become a leader in chemicals. Plastics, resins, rubber goods, fuel additives, vinyl siding, anti-freeze and all the lawn care herbicides and pesticides are just some of those compounds.
Roundup (glyphosate) is what has garnered Monsanto much publicity recently, but the company's synthetics are in everything from safety glass protecting the Mona Lisa to sports fields.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved Roundup Ready alfalfa -- it's been gene-spliced to take applications of Roundup to allow farmers to spray for weeds.
Monsanto's bio-tech products haven't been completely tested, or proven safe, and Monsanto's complete disregard for the precautionary principle (better safe than sorry) might bring a shutdown of our alfalfa crop, both organic and conventional.
Organic dairies and beef producers count on organic alfalfa for growing their animals and milk production. Alfalfa cross-pollinates, and independent researchers fear that DNA from RR alfalfa will contaminate organic and other GM-free fields -- possibly in a few years. (Monsanto has also engineered Roundup Ready soy beans, sugar beets and wheat.)
That's going to kill GM-free markets here, including natural beef, horse breeding, sprouting and honey industries. Alfalfa grown in the U.S. accounts for more than 21 million acres of crop fields. The gall of the USDA appeared when it argued that the agency did not have to address risks to organic and conventional growers whose alfalfa crop could be contaminated by Monsanto's RR alfalfa.
In May 2007, a federal judge ordered a permanent injunction on further planting of RR alfalfa until a full Environmental Impact Study is completed.
The Center for Food Safety, Western Organization of Resource Councils and seven other plaintiffs are challenging the commercial release of RR alfalfa.
Here's the problem with RR alfalfa: It will increase the cost of organic milk and beef because finding non-GM adulterated hay will be difficult. RR Alfalfa also increases herbicide use, and as a result, glyphosate-resistant "super" weeds are popping up. Additionally, these GM seeds increase the farmers' seed and chemical costs. What about the health and productivity of livestock and wildlife exposed to the GM crop? Those questions have not been answered.
The Pacific Northwest export hay market -- Japanese customers have already stated they will not purchase GM hay -- will be ruined if GM alfalfa is grown in our states.
These are a lot of unanswered questions, but one of the most basic premises behind advocating caution in introducing a GM alfalfa crop is that it runs counter to the idea of independent farmers supplying America with safe food. Monsanto made big bucks during the Vietnam War producing the defoliant Agent Orange; now it wants complete corporate control of the American farmer.
This is a war of a giant agribusiness extortionist against the farmer and citizen consumer. Organic groceries make up around four percent of all U.S. grocery sales, but, according to the Organic Trade Association, annual organic sales' growth is 20 percent nationwide.
The number one enemy of Washington State organic dairy owners and beef operators just might be this 107-year-old company. It's a multi-billion dollar hydra of scientists, lawyers, PR folk and CEOs who are being dubbed the "mafia" of the ag world.
Washington has a $54 million a year conventional and organic hay market -- mostly alfalfa. Organic beef, cheese and dairy producers can't get enough of this herbaceous legume -- one of the country's top four field corps (along with wheat, soy, and corn).
Soil bacterium genes have been split and manipulated into alfalfa so the legume tolerates glyphosate (Roundup) sprayed on it.
Even if we forget the untested biological issues, we should worry that Monsanto is cornering various markets driving agriculture. Monsanto paid $1.4 billion for Seminis, which controlled 40 percent of the U.S. market for lettuce, tomatoes and other vegetable and fruit seeds. Monsanto then scooped up Emergent Genetics -- third largest cottonseed producer in the U.S. -- for $300 million. Monsanto seeds account for more than 90 percent of the soybean production in the U.S.
The Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network and Puget Consumer Cooperative are trying to build a coalition of consumer groups, cattle ranchers, dairy operators and others to say No to RRA in Washington. It's time citizens fight for their right to have food choices. We can't throw caution in the wind on this food issue.
Paul Haeder teaches at SFCC. He's also on the board of Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network, www.wsffn.org. For more information on what to do about Roundup Ready alfalfa, go to www.worc.org or www.centerforfoodsafety.org