y Colorado potato beetle vigil came to an end the first week of July,
shortly before I went to Idaho to visit potato growers. I spied a single
mature beetle sitting on a New Leaf leaf; when I reached to pick it up,
the beetle fell drunkenly to the ground. It had been sickened by the
plant and would soon be dead. My New Leafs were working.
>From where a typical American potato grower stands, the New Leaf looks
very much like a godsend. That's because where the typical potato grower
stands is in the middle of a bright green field that has been doused
with so much pesticide that the leaves of his plants wear a dull white
chemical bloom that troubles him as much as it does the rest of us. Out
there, at least, the calculation is not complex: a product that promises
to eliminate the need for even a single spraying of pesticide is, very
simply, an economic and environmental boon.
No one can make a better case for a biotech crop than a potato farmer,
which is why Monsanto was eager to introduce me to several large
growers. Like many farmers today, the ones I met feel trapped by the
chemical inputs required to extract the high yields they must achieve in
order to pay for the chemical inputs they need. The economics are
daunting: a potato farmer in south-central Idaho will spend roughly
$1,965 an acre (mainly on chemicals, electricity, water and seed) to
grow a crop that, in a good year, will earn him maybe $1,980. That's how
much a french-fry processor will pay for the 20 tons of potatoes a
single Idaho acre can yield. (The real money in agriculture -- 90
percent of the value added to the food we eat -- is in selling inputs to
farmers and then processing their crops.)
Like pesticides and chemical fertilizers, the new biotech crops will
probably, as advertised, increase yields. But equally important, they
will also speed the process by which agriculture is being concentrated
in a shrinking number of corporate hands.
Danny Forsyth laid out the dismal economics of potato farming for me one
sweltering morning at the coffee shop in downtown Jerome, Idaho.
Forsyth, 60, is a slight blue-eyed man with a small gray ponytail; he
farms 3,000 acres of potatoes, corn and wheat, and he spoke about
agricultural chemicals like a man desperate to kick a bad habit. "None
of us would use them if we had any choice," he said glumly.
I asked him to walk me through a season's regimen. It typically begins
early in the spring with a soil fumigant; to control nematodes, many
potato farmers douse their fields with a chemical toxic enough to kill
every trace of microbial life in the soil. Then, at planting, a systemic
insecticide (like Thimet) is applied to the soil; this will be absorbed
by the young seedlings and, for several weeks, will kill any insect that
eats their leaves. After planting, Forsyth puts down an herbicide --
Sencor or Eptam -- to "clean" his field of all weeds. When the potato
seedlings are six inches tall, an herbicide may be sprayed a second time
to control weeds.
Idaho farmers like Forsyth farm in vast circles defined by the rotation
of a pivot irrigation system, typically 135 acres to a circle; I'd seen
them from 30,000 feet flying in, a grid of verdant green coins pressed
into a desert of scrubby brown. Pesticides and fertilizers are simply
added to the irrigation system, which on Forsyth's farm draws most of
its water from the nearby Snake River. Along with their water, Forsyth's
potatoes may receive 10 applications of chemical fertilizer during the
growing season. Just before the rows close -- when the leaves of one row
of plants meet those of the next -- he begins spraying Bravo, a
fungicide, to control late blight, one of the biggest threats to the
potato crop. (Late blight, which caused the Irish potato famine, is an
airborne fungus that turns stored potatoes into rotting mush.) Blight is
such a serious problem that the E.P.A. currently allows farmers to spray
powerful fungicides that haven't passed the usual approval process.
Forsyth's potatoes will receive eight applications of fungicide.
Twice each summer, Forsyth hires a crop duster to spray for aphids.
Aphids are harmless in themselves, but they transmit the leafroll virus,
which in Russet Burbank potatoes causes net necrosis, a brown spotting
that will cause a processor to reject a whole crop. It happened to
Forsyth last year. "I lost 80,000 bags" -- they're a hundred pounds each
-- "to net necrosis," he said. "Instead of getting $4.95 a bag, I had to
take $2 a bag from the dehydrator, and I was lucky to get that." Net
necrosis is a purely cosmetic defect; yet because big buyers like
McDonald's believe (with good reason) that we don't like to see brown
spots in our fries, farmers like Danny Forsyth must spray their fields
with some of the most toxic chemicals in use, including an organophosp
hate called Monitor.
"Monitor is a deadly chemical," Forsyth said. "I won't go into a field
for four or five days after it's been sprayed -- even to fix a broken
pivot." That is, he would sooner lose a whole circle to drought than
expose himself or an employee to Monitor, which has been found to cause
It's not hard to see why a farmer like Forsyth, struggling against tight
margins and heartsick over chemicals, would leap at a New Leaf -- or, in
his case, a New Leaf Plus, which is protected from leafroll virus as
well as beetles. "The New Leaf means I can skip a couple of sprayings,
including the Monitor," he said. "I save money, and I sleep better. It
also happens to be a nice-looking spud." The New Leafs don't come
cheaply, however. They cost between $20 and $30 extra per acre in
"technology fees" to Monsanto.
Forsyth and I discussed organic agriculture, about which he had the
usual things to say ("That's all fine on a small scale, but they don't
have to feed the world"), as well as a few things I'd never heard from a
conventional farmer: "I like to eat organic food, and in fact I raise a
lot of it at the house. The vegetables we buy at the market we just wash
and wash and wash. I'm not sure I should be saying this, but I always
plant a small area of potatoes without any chemicals. By the end of the
season, my field potatoes are fine to eat, but any potatoes I pulled
today are probably still full of systemics. I don't eat them."
Forsyth's words came back to me a few hours later, during lunch at the
home of another potato farmer. Steve Young is a progressive and
prosperous potato farmer -- he calls himself an agribusinessman. In
addition to his 10,000 acres -- the picture window in his family room
gazes out on 85 circles, all computer-controlled -- Young owns a share
in a successful fertilizer distributorship. His wife prepared a lavish
feast for us, and after Dave, their 18-year-old, said grace, adding a
special prayer for me (the Youngs are devout Mormons), she passed around
a big bowl of homemade potato salad. As I helped myself, my Monsanto
escort asked what was in the salad, flashing me a smile that suggested
she might already know. "It's a combination of New Leafs and some of our
regular Russets," our hostess said proudly. "Dug this very morning."
fter talking to farmers like Steve Young and Danny Forsyth, and walking
fields made virtually sterile by a drenching season-long rain of
chemicals, you could understand how Monsanto's New Leaf potato does
indeed look like an environmental boon. Set against current practices,
growing New Leafs represents a more sustainable way of potato farming.
This advance must be weighed, of course, against everything we don't yet
know about New Leafs -- and a few things we do: like the problem of Bt
resistance I had heard so much about back East. While I was in Idaho and
Washington State, I asked potato farmers to show me their refuges. This
proved to be a joke.
"I guess that's a refuge over there," one Washington farmer told me,
pointing to a cornfield.
Monsanto's grower contract never mentions the word "refuge" and only
requires that farmers plant no more than 80 percent of their fields in
New Leaf. Basically, any field not planted in New Leaf is considered a
refuge, even if that field has been sprayed to kill every bug in it.
Farmers call such acreage a clean field; calling it a refuge is a
stretch at best.
It probably shouldn't come as a big surprise that conventional farmers
would have trouble embracing the notion of an insect refuge. To insist
on real and substantial refuges is to ask them to start thinking of
their fields in an entirely new way, less as a factory than as an
ecosystem. In the factory, Bt is another in a long line of "silver
bullets" that work for a while and then get replaced; in the ecosystem,
all bugs are not necessarily bad, and the relationships between various
species can be manipulated to achieve desired ends -- like the long-term
sustainability of Bt.
This is, of course, precisely the approach organic farmers have always
taken to their fields, and after my lunch with the Youngs that
afternoon, I paid a brief visit to an organic potato grower. Mike Heath
is a rugged, laconic man in his mid-50's; like most of the organic
farmers I've met, he looks as though he spends a lot more time out of
doors than a conventional farmer, and he probably does: chemicals are,
among other things, labor-saving devices. While we drove around his 500
acres in a battered old pickup, I asked him about biotechnology. He
voiced many reservations -- it was synthetic, there were too many
unknowns -- but his main objection to planting a biotech potato was
simply that "it's not what my customers want."
That point was driven home last December when the Department of
Agriculture proposed a new "organic standards" rule that, among other
things, would have allowed biotech crops to carry an organic label.
After receiving a flood of outraged cards and letters, the agency backed
off. (As did Monsanto, which asked the U.S.D.A. to shelve the issue for
three years.) Heath suggested that biotech may actually help organic
farmers by driving worried consumers to the organic label.
I asked Heath about the New Leaf. He had no doubt resistance would come
-- "the bugs are always going to be smarter than we are" -- and said it
was unjust that Monsanto was profiting from the ruin of Bt, something he
regarded as a "public good."
None of this particularly surprised me; what did was that Heath himself
resorted to Bt sprays only once or twice in the last 10 years. I had
assumed that organic farmers used Bt or other approved pesticides in
much the same way conventional farmers use theirs, but as Heath showed
me around his farm, I began to understand that organic farming was a lot
more complicated than substituting good inputs for bad. Instead of
buying many inputs at all, Heath relied on long and complex crop
rotations to prevent a buildup of crop-specific pests -- he has found,
for example, that planting wheat after spuds "confuses" the potato
He also plants strips of flowering crops on the margins of his potato
fields -- peas or alfalfa, usually -- to attract the beneficial insects
that eat beetle larvae and aphids. If there aren't enough beneficials to
do the job, he'll introduce ladybugs. Heath also grows eight varieties
of potatoes, on the theory that biodiversity in a field, as in the wild,
is the best defense against any imbalances in the system. A bad year
with one variety will probably be offset by a good year with the others.
"I can eat any potato in this field right now," he said, digging Yukon
Golds for me to take home. "Most farmers can't eat their spuds out of
the field. But you don't want to start talking about safe food in
Heath's were the antithesis of "clean" fields, and, frankly, their weedy
margins and overall patchiness made them much less pretty to look at.
Yet it was the very complexity of these fields -- the sheer diversity of
species, both in space and time -- that made them productive year after
year without many inputs. The system provided for most of its needs.
'I'm not sure I should be saying this, but I always plant a small area
of potatoes without any chemicals,' said Danny Forsyth, who farms by
conventional means. 'By the end of the season, my field potatoes are
fine to eat, but any potatoes I pulled today are probably still full of
systemics. I don't eat them.'
All told, Heath's annual inputs consisted of natural fertilizers
(compost and fish powder), ladybugs and a copper spray (for blight) -- a
few hundred dollars an acre. Of course, before you can compare Heath's
operation with a conventional farm, you've got to add in the extra labor
(lots of smaller crops means more work; organic fields must also be
cultivated for weeds) and time -- the typical organic rotation calls for
potatoes every fifth year, in contrast to every third on a conventional
farm. I asked Heath about his yields. To my astonishment, he was digging
between 300 and 400 bags per acre -- just as many as Danny Forsyth and
only slightly fewer than Steve Young. Heath was also getting almost
twice the price for his spuds: $8 a bag from an organic processor who
was shipping frozen french fries to Japan.
On the drive back to Boise, I thought about why Heath's farm remained
the exception, both in Idaho and elsewhere. Here was a genuinely new
paradigm that seemed to work. But while it's true that organic
agriculture is gaining ground (I met a big grower in Washington who had
just added several organic circles), few of the mainstream farmers I met
considered organic a "realistic" alternative. For one thing, it's
expensive to convert: organic certifiers require a field to go without
chemicals for three years before it can be called organic. For another,
the U.S.D.A., which sets the course of American agriculture, has long
been hostile to organic methods.
But I suspect the real reasons run deeper, and have more to do with the
fact that in a dozen ways a farm like Heath's simply doesn't conform to
the requirements of a corporate food chain. Heath's type of agriculture
doesn't leave much room for the Monsantos of this world: organic farmers
buy remarkably little -- some seed, a few tons of compost, maybe a few
gallons of ladybugs. That's because the organic farmer's focus is on a
process, rather than on products. Nor is that process readily
systematized, reduced to, say, a prescribed regime of sprayings like the
one Forsyth outlined for me -- regimes that are often designed by
companies selling chemicals.
Most of the intelligence and local knowledge needed to run Mike Heath's
farm resides in the head of Mike Heath. Growing potatoes conventionally
requires intelligence, too, but a large portion of it resides in
laboratories in distant places like St. Louis, where it is employed in
developing sophisticated chemical inputs. That sort of centralization of
agriculture is unlikely to be reversed, if only because there's so much
money in it; besides, it's much easier for the farmer to buy prepackaged
solutions from big companies. "Whose Head Is the Farmer Using? Whose
Head Is Using the Farmer?" goes the title of a Wendell Berry essay.
Organic farmers like Heath have also rejected what is perhaps the
cornerstone of industrial agriculture: the economies of scale that only
a monoculture can achieve. Monoculture -- growing vast fields of the
same crop year after year -- is probably the single most powerful
simplification of modern agriculture. But monoculture is poorly fitted
to the way nature seems to work. Very simply, a field of identical
plants will be exquisitely vulnerable to insects, weeds and disease.
Monoculture is at the root of virtually every problem that bedevils the
modern farmer, and that virtually every input has been designed to
To put the matter baldly, a farmer like Heath is working very hard to
adjust his fields and his crops to the nature of nature, while farmers
like Forsyth are working equally hard to adjust nature in their fields
to the requirement of monoculture and, beyond that, to the needs of the
industrial food chain. I remember asking Heath what he did about net
necrosis, the bane of Forsyth's existence. "That's only really a problem
with Russet Burbanks," he said. "So I plant other kinds." Forsyth can't
do that. He's part of a food chain -- at the far end of which stands a
long, perfectly golden McDonald's fry -- that demands he grow Russet
Burbanks and little else.
This is where biotechnology comes in, to the rescue of Forsyth's Russet
Burbanks and, if Monsanto is right, to the whole food chain of which
they form a part. Monoculture is in trouble -- the pesticides that make
it possible are rapidly being lost, either to resistance or to
heightened concerns about their danger. Biotechnology is the new silver
bullet that will save monoculture. But a new silver bullet is not a new
paradigm -- rather, it's something that will allow the old paradigm to
survive. That paradigm will always construe the problem in Forsyth's
fields as a Colorado potato beetle problem, rather than as a problem of
ike the silver bullets that preceded them -- the modern hybrids, the
pesticides and the chemical fertilizers -- the new biotech crops will
probably, as advertised, increase yields. But equally important, they
will also speed the process by which agriculture is being concentrated
in a shrinking number of corporate hands. If that process has advanced
more slowly in farming than in other sectors of the economy, it is only
because nature herself -- her complexity, diversity and sheer
intractability in the face of our best efforts at control -- has acted
as a check on it. But biotechnology promises to remedy this "problem,"
Consider, for example, the seed, perhaps the ultimate "means of
production" in any agriculture. It is only in the last few decades that
farmers have begun buying their seed from big companies, and even today
many farmers still save some seed every fall to replant in the spring.
Brown-bagging, as it is called, allows farmers to select strains
particularly well adapted to their needs; since these seeds are often
traded, the practice advances the state of the genetic art -- indeed,
has given us most of our crop plants. Seeds by their very nature don't
lend themselves to commodification: they produce more of themselves ad
infinitum (with the exception of certain modern hybrids), and for that
reason the genetics of most major crop plants have traditionally been
regarded as a common heritage. In the case of the potato, the genetics
of most important varieties -- the Burbanks, the Superiors, the
Atlantics -- have always been in the public domain. Before Monsanto
released the New Leaf, there had never been a multinational seed
corporation in the potato-seed business -- there was no money in it.
Biotechnology changes all that. By adding a new gene or two to a Russet
Burbank or Superior, Monsanto can now patent the improved variety.
Legally, it has been possible to patent a plant for many years, but
biologically, these patents have been almost impossible to enforce.
Biotechnology partly solves that problem. A Monsanto agent can perform a
simple test in my garden and prove that my plants are the company's
intellectual property. The contract farmers sign with Monsanto allows
company representatives to perform such tests in their fields at will.
According to Progressive Farmer, a trade journal, Monsanto is using
informants and hiring Pinkertons to enforce its patent rights; it has
already brought legal action against hundreds of farmers for patent
Soon the company may not have to go to the trouble. It is expected to
acquire the patent to a powerful new biotechnology called the
Terminator, which will, in effect, allow the company to enforce its
patents biologically. Developed by the U.S.D.A. in partnership with
Delta and Pine Land, a seed company in the process of being purchased by
Monsanto, the Terminator is a complex of genes that, theoretically, can
be spliced into any crop plant, where it will cause every seed produced
by that plant to be sterile. Once the Terminator becomes the industry
standard, control over the genetics of crop plants will complete its
move from the farmer's field to the seed company -- to which the farmer
will have no choice but to return year after year. The Terminator will
allow companies like Monsanto to privatize one of the last great commons
in nature -- the genetics of the crop plants that civilization has
developed over the past 10,000 years.
At lunch on his farm in Idaho, I had asked Steve Young what he thought
about all this, especially about the contract Monsanto made him sign. I
wondered how the American farmer, the putative heir to a long tradition
of agrarian independence, was adjusting to the idea of field men
snooping around his farm, and patented seed he couldn't replant. Young
said he had made his peace with corporate agriculture, and with
biotechnology in particular: "It's here to stay. It's necessary if we're
going to feed the world, and it's going to take us forward."
Then I asked him if he saw any downside to biotechnology, and he paused
for what seemed a very long time. What he then said silenced the table.
"There is a cost," he said. "It gives corporate America one more noose
around my neck."
few weeks after I returned home from Idaho, I dug my New Leafs,
harvesting a gorgeous-looking pile of white spuds, including some real
lunkers. The plants had performed brilliantly, though so had all my
other potatoes. The beetle problem never got serious, probably because
the diversity of species in my (otherwise organic) garden had attracted
enough beneficial insects to keep the beetles in check. By the time I
harvested my crop, the question of eating the New Leafs was moot.
Whatever I thought about the soundness of the process that had declared
these potatoes safe didn't matter. Not just because I'd already had a
few bites of New Leaf potato salad at the Youngs but also because
Monsanto and the F.D.A. and the E.P.A. had long ago taken the decision
of whether or not to eat a biotech potato out of my -- out of all of our
-- hands. Chances are, I've eaten New Leafs already, at McDonald's or in
a bag of Frito-Lay chips, though without a label there can be no way of
knowing for sure.
So if I've probably eaten New Leafs already, why was it that I kept
putting off eating mine? Maybe because it was August, and there were so
many more-interesting fresh potatoes around -- fingerlings with dense,
luscious flesh, Yukon Golds that tasted as though they had been
pre-buttered -- that the idea of cooking with a bland commercial variety
like the Superior seemed beside the point.
There was this, too: I had called Margaret Mellon at the Union of
Concerned Scientists to ask her advice. Mellon is a molecular biologist
and lawyer and a leading critic of biotech agriculture. She couldn't
offer any hard scientific evidence that my New Leafs were unsafe, though
she emphasized how little we know about the effects of Bt in the human
diet. "That research simply hasn't been done," she said.
I pressed. Is there any reason I shouldn't eat these spuds?
"Let me turn that around. Why would you want to?"
It was a good question. So for a while I kept my New Leafs in a bag on
the porch. Then I took the bag with me on vacation, thinking maybe I'd
sample them there, but the bag came home untouched.
The bag sat on my porch till the other day, when I was invited to an
end-of-summer potluck supper at the town beach. Perfect. I signed up to
make a potato salad. I brought the bag into the kitchen and set a pot of
water on the stove. But before it boiled I was stricken by this thought:
I'd have to tell people at the picnic what they were eating. I'm sure
(well, almost sure) the potatoes are safe, but if the idea of eating
biotech food without knowing it bothered me, how could I possibly ask my
neighbors to? So I'd tell them about the New Leafs -- and then, no
doubt, lug home a big bowl of untouched potato salad. For surely there
would be other potato salads at the potluck and who, given the choice,
was ever going to opt for the bowl with the biotech spuds?
So there they sit, a bag of biotech spuds on my porch. I'm sure they're
absolutely fine. I pass the bag every day, thinking I really should try
one, but I'm beginning to think that what I like best about these
particular biotech potatoes -- what makes them different -- is that I
have this choice. And until I know more, I choose not.
To Unsubscribe: Email email@example.com with "unsubscribe sanet-mg".
To Subscribe to Digest: Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the command