The case of a Texas organic cotton farmer -- and a class-action lawsuit -- illustrates how the victims of genetic pollution can be sued by the behemoth agribusiness giants who are harming them -- and the environment.
"Through the windows of LaRhea Pepper’s pickup, turnrows of blooming Texas cotton stretched to the horizon under an impeccably blue sky. We barreled down a dirt road toward her brother-in-law Carl’s farm, a tall cloud of dust kicking up behind us. Around LaRhea’s neck, a tiny bale of cotton at the end of a silver chain bounced as she maneuvered the dips in the road. “Help yourself to some pecans,” she said, pointing to a Ziploc bag in the cup holder. Her cellphone rang, and the Addams Family theme song filled the cabin. When LaRhea finished the call, I asked why she had decided to join a class-action lawsuit against biotechnology giant Monsanto.
For a small organic farmer on the high plains of Texas, challenging Monsanto is tantamount to questioning the power and promise of biotechnology, which has captured the imagination of traditional cotton farmers. In Texas, 91 percent of cotton is now genetically modified. Nationwide, the percentage is 94. Though a number of biotech companies produce genetically modified seeds, St. Louis-based Monsanto has emerged as the worldwide leader. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that more than 90 percent of the genetically modified seed planted in Texas contained the Roundup Ready gene—the intellectual property of Monsanto.
The Roundup Ready gene, which modifies crops to tolerate the glyphosate herbicide Roundup, was hailed as a miracle for farmers when commercially introduced in 1996. The combination made weed control simple, flexible, and eliminated the need to till fields, improving soil conservation. Roundup was incredibly effective in its early years, yet recent studies documenting such risks as Roundup-resistant superweeds have tempered enthusiasm for genetically modified seeds among some scientists and traditional farmers. For organic farmers, the threat from Roundup Ready seeds is more basic: contamination. With widespread use of Roundup Ready seeds, it’s become increasingly difficult for organic farmers to isolate their operations from their neighbors’ genetically modified crops."
Eva Hershaw reports for the Texas Observer February 7, 2013. The story was produced as part of a joint venture with Reporting Texas, an online publication at the University of Texas-Austin’s School of Journalism.