Change is inevitable but not all change is good
Technology can lead to improvements in agriculture but also to turmoil and problems.
An acquaintance who owned a dairy herd in the rolling hills of southeastern Minnesota phoned in the 1990s to say that he was upset that researchers in Scotland had cloned a sheep, the first ever mammal successfully cloned.
It was 1996 and Dolly became a worldwide sensation. He feared the successful cloning would swiftly lead to cloned pigs and cattle and the patenting of animals carrying imported genes. We have, he said, no business patenting animals, which are God’s creation.
Dolly (named after Dolly Parton) would go on to birth six lambs before arthritis caused her to be euthanized.
This farmer and I had met earlier in the 1990s when bovine somatotropin reached the market. Monsanto, its maker, held production informational meetings in dairy country to introduce the product. The events were well attended by people who wanted to learn more about it and others who feared production-boosting somatotropin would cause milk surpluses and plunging prices.
Complaints had circulated that consumers would reject milk containing somatotropin and weaken demand. Monsanto’s representatives responded that the product did not change milk’s nutrient content or taste and was otherwise the same as non-BST milk.
Somatotropin ultimately did not affect the industry as many feared. It is estimated that only about 25% of herd owners injected BST in selected cows and consumers never embraced it. Eventually, few processors were willing to accept BST-produced product.
Shortly after somatotropin entered the dairy scene, Monsanto introduced Roundup Ready soybeans. It was a sea change for row-crop farmers and changed the relationship between seed producers and end users. Monsanto charged a technology fee for Roundup Ready seed and vowed to pursue legal action against farmers who planted bin-run soybean seed for stealing its technology.
Monsanto aggressively pursued legal action, filing 150 suits against farmers and settling an additional 700 before entering court. One of the most widely known cases involved Roger Nelson and his sons, who allegedly illegally planted Roundup Ready beans in the 1999 crop year. The Nelsons, who were from Amenia, N.D., denied Monsanto’s claims. The family eventually settled out of court with the St. Louis-based company and signed a confidentiality agreement that prevented them from discussing the settlement.
However, the Nelson case prompted North Dakota to enact a law that allows the North Dakota State Seed Department to accompany authorities investigating possible seed technology thefts within the state.
Roundup soon became a bigger headache for the firm. Lawsuits alleging that the product causes cancer were filed across the country. The legal dam broke when a Missouri resident won a multimillion-dollar settlement against the company. Other pending lawsuits motivated Monsanto to allocate $10 billion to settle claims against it.
Its legal problems continued beyond U.S. borders.
Brazilian farmers filed a $7.7 billion lawsuit against Monsanto over a Roundup patent. Monsanto won the suit. The National Black Farmers Association in August of this year filed a civil rights lawsuit in Missouri, saying that Roundup use disproportionately affected black farmers. The association says the lawsuit’s purpose is to ban the sale of all Roundup-related products.
It is not Monsanto’s headache any more, in the sense the firm is owned by Bayer AG, which purchased the company in 2018. Bayer AG, the German-based pesticide maker and pharmaceutical behemoth, spent $66 billion on the purchase.
Bayer has its own troubled history. During World War I, it manufactured chlorine and other gases that were used against Allied troops, and it worked closely with Hitler’s regime as it built and used its murderous war machine.
That is ancient history, and the future will take us where it will.
Neither the dairy farmer nor I understood the rapid and irreversible change that has taken place in recent decades. I am sure that he and I would agree that change is inevitable, but not all innovations are unquestionably good.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.