Rounding Up Hunters


It looks like the end is near for the hunting of wild game birds in the Midwest. Predictions are the birds soon will start to disappear. And the culprit won't be overhunting, but biotechnology.

Scientists at the Monsanto Company are hard at work on the technology to establish crop uniformity, wiping out the weeds that support many types of wild game. They have perfected it for corn, soybeans and cotton, and they have programs underway to extend the technology to a dozen other crops.

The core of Monsanto's technology is glyphosate, a patented 20-plus year old herbicide marketed under the trade name Roundup. Glyphosate is the atomic bomb of herbicides: it kills everything. It is the best-selling herbicide ever invented, and a cash cow for the company, accounting for 30% of Monsanto's revenues.

Facing the expiration of its patents, the company looked for some way to tie farmers to its herbicide so they couldn't stray to a potential generic knock-off.

The solution was to engineer crops that could withstand Roundup. That had an added benefit for the company: it let farmers use more of the herbicide each season, since they could keep spraying it to kill weeds even after their crops had begun to sprout.

The benefit for Monsanto comes with a cost, however, a cost to the environment. "We already have a very simplified environment in the agricultural heartland, but it is still weedy enough to support some wildlife," said Dr. Orley "Chip" Taylor, a biologist at the University of Kansas. "If we eliminate weeds, it will not support even this limited diversity of wildlife."

Taylor thinks hunters will be the first to cry foul. "If [Monsanto] comes up with Roundup-resistant mill and sorghum, they will take all the weeds out of the system that support game birds," he said. "All you will have to do is listen to the cries of the hunters who can't find pheasant or quail" to know that diversity in the environment is collapsing.

Other species will be affected, too. Taylor, who also is director of the Monarch Project, a collaborative U.S.-Canadian research project on Monarch butterflies, said Roundup-resistant corn and soybeans already pose a threat to that butterfly.

"We have just shown that 50 percent of the Monarchs that arrive in Mexico arrive from the agricultural heartland of the U.S.," he said. Monarchs feed off of milkweed, which grows in corn and soybean fields. The eradication of milkweed is one of the main marketing pegs for Roundup resistant corn and soybeans.

Yet evidence suggests "there is not enough milkweed in pastures and wild areas to support the number of Monarchs we see," said Taylor. He is seeking funding to definitely determine where Monarchs feed, before farmers plant so many acres in Roundup-resistant seeds that it decimates the butterfly population.

The British government's wildlife advisor, English Nature, has similar concerns. It wants to find out if more effective weed killing will decimate the song bird population before the herbicide resistance technology floods the marketplace.

Monsanto, however, isn't waiting. Its quest for biouniformity doesn't stop at the field's edge. In April the company announced it had agreements with three lumber companies to develop Roundup resistant trees, so they could wipe away weeds and noneconomic trees from forest floors. The companies are International Paper Co., Westvaco, and Fletcher Challenge Group of New Zealand.

Such research conjures up the image of a countryside that resembles a well manicured suburban lawn: no weeds or brush, but also no birds or wild game. Is such a countryside really desirable, let alone sustainable?

Peter Downs is a freelance writer based in St. Louis

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