Killing more than weeds

Rows of corn reach for the summer sun.For years, the largest seed company in the world also, in many quarters, has been the most hated. No, I’m not talking about Burpee, which is pretty big, and not at all related to the company that is the subject of this week’s ruminations.

My mom used to look forward to the Burpee catalog every year. In it, she would find the seeds for the garden that fed the six of us – Mom, Dad and four kids. For the record, I was the eldest child. Much of what we ate came from the garden, about an acre, in 30-foot rows of corn, tomatoes, cabbage, beets, carrots, asparagus and a few other tasties. Dad bought a gas engine and a pump, acquired a few pieces of discarded fire hose from his brother the fire chief, and built an irrigation pump. I probably learned to create useful things from projects like that.

We had a rototiller, probably from the Western Auto where Dad worked. Dad liked to tell his friends how he ran the tiller and his boys picked rocks out of the soil.

He was part right. Mom did most of the tilling, and I know which of the boys picked the most rocks, when he wasn’t hiding out with a book, learning to become a writer.

Monsanto is the world’s largest seed company. Or it was until this spring, when Bayer paid $63 billion to absorb Monsanto’s assets and bury its name.

For years, the company has spent millions of dollars trying to convince us its genetically engineered produce is making agriculture better as it traps farmers worldwide into a cycle of annually purchasing Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready system.”

Each year, weeds develop resistance to the herbicide, and a new batch of Roundup is concocted. Then, because last year’s plants look like weeds to this year’s weed killer, Monsanto would re-engineer the seeds – mostly corn and soybeans – to make them immune to the latest Roundup genetics, and farmers buy the herbicide, seed and fertilizer from Monsanto, making the “system” Roundup Ready.

It has been a wonderful program for the company, which thwarted competition by prohibiting growers from saving seeds from the previous year’s crop, and suing farmers of adjacent fields when wind blew their non-Monsanto pollen onto the company-seeded field.

But the air has been heating up around Monsanto. Scientists around the world have determined Roundup herbicide is not good for nearby humans. The list of countries to ban use of glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, is lengthy. In July 2017, California added glyphosate to its list of chemicals known to cause cancer.

At least one study has indicated that glyphosate by itself may not be the culprit; maybe the problem is glyphosate when it is mixed with the other chemicals in Monsanto’s recipe.

This month, a jury in California ruled that a school groundskeeper is dying of cancer because he regularly was required to apply Roundup to kill weeds on the school’s grounds. The Jury awarded 46-year-old Dewayne Johnson nearly $290 million dollars. The company has appealed the decree.

In April, the U.S. Justice Department gave Bayer it’s blessing to buy Monsanto, making Bayer the owner of about a quarter of the world’s seeds and pesticides. Officially, the deal is being called a merger, but the Monsanto 117-year-old name will be erased.

Profits are wonderful – the more the better. We all like to be paid for what we produce. But there is, it seems, too much evidence that the company making the profits in this story may have been killing a slew of folks to do it.

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