RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Who Do I Bill for My Poisoned Hawthorn?

The thicket of hawthorns along our back fence is dying. Last spring, when all the hawthorns in the state were bursting into glorious white or pinkish bloom, ours barely managed to put out a few leaves. As the summer has progressed, they've gotten weaker. Now, when everything else is green and robust, our hawthorns are almost leafless.

Here's the good news: We believe the responsible killers are rich. Really, really filthy rich. They own patents on most all the seeds planted in the county, and they're powerful enough to change gene pools almost overnight. All we have to do, I figure, is ask for new trees.

"I'm not as sanguine as you are," my husband says about that plan.

Here's the bad news: Our suspects just put a major part of their business up for sale. Wall Street (your pension plan and/or mutual funds, for example) wants them to reduce an $8 billion debt.

Explanation follows:

The guy who plants the field behind us has put in a crop of Roundup Ready soybeans. He plants them right up to our fence, only a skinny few inches away from our hawthorns.

These soybeans that have been engineered to survive a thorough dousing with Roundup, an herbicide that kills everything else. We don't know exactly what secret genes Monsanto has put in the beans--it's patented--but it works. Our neighbor drives through the field with his tanks full of Roundup, or Roundup Ultra, even more powerful, and everything in the field dies except the soybeans. Roundup and Roundup Ultra are registered trademarks of Monsanto.

The dead things on his side of the fence have connections with the living things on our side of the fence. When he sprayed the hawthorns in his field, the death traveled to our trees. And, there are lots of other trees on his side of the fence, all of them nuisances to a smooth, unbroken mile-wide stand of soybeans. Makes us wonder whether in the long run any of our trees will survive or whether they'll pass death from one to another until all the woods are gone and there's nothing left but Roundup-Ready beans as far as the eye can see.

Lots of seeds have been engineered -- or modified -- to resist Roundup. Sometimes you hear the modified seeds called "GMOs" or Genetically Modified Organisms. Sometimes they're called Frankenfoods, after the sad monster that was given life and awareness by a mad scientist, only to learn that his manufactured self couldn't survive in polite society.

But the Monsanto seeds are surviving. In fact, they're surviving in your kids' U.S.-made corn chips, and the tortilla wrapped around your taco. They're in your baby's formula and your salad dressing and a thousand other processed foods.

Frankenfoods have taken over industrial-type farming in America. Our seed salesmen boast that farmers are now planting 100% Roundup-Ready soybeans. Roundup is the best-selling herbicide in the world. The whole world.

So Monsanto must be rich, right?


The Wall Street Journal announced on July 2 that Monsanto needs to sell assets to "help pay for its $8 billion spending spree on crop biotechnology." According the article, Wall Street's institutional investors (your pension plan and/or mutual funds, for example) want Monsanto to sell off even more. They want him to sell G.D. Searle, the Monsanto-owned drug maker, but CEO Robert Shapiro says, rather cumbersomely, "The science-based nutritional business is at the intersection of agriculture and pharmaceuticals." He adds, for the jargon-impaired, "It potentially is very big."

This column could now take off in all directions. We could review the career of Shapiro, who has been called the most hated CEO in the world because of his absolute arrogance toward farmers and consumers. There has been a global rebellion against Monsanto -- fields burned, seeds dumped -- but you wouldn't know it from our press.

Or I could reveal that Monsanto has been trying to sell off a bunch of businesses. This might interest you if you're in the market for a cotton-seed company or a processor of seaweed.

Or we could reminisce over the companies that have cancelled their associations with Monsanto. American Home Products was almost ready to hop in bed, but the deal fell apart "depriving Monsanto of access to the deeper pockets of the much bigger AHP," says the Wall Street Journal.

Or we could marvel at the guiltless innocence of Wall Street investors (your pension plan and/or mutual funds, for example) who learned that Shapiro is trying to follow directions and responded by bumping the stock up 6.5% in one day.

Or I could use the words "draconian policy," a phrase I've been dying to use because I read it all the time in columns describing the policies of "oppressive regimes." Monsanto has instituted the draconian policy of suing farmers who save their seeds to re-plant. Such is the policy of a company that holds patents on genetics. (By the way, Dear Reader, has anybody patented your genes? And are you planning to reproduce?)

Or I could cut and paste from my column last October: "The University of Missouri has accepted 80 million dollars from St. Louis-based Monsanto to build a plant science center ... Governor Mel Carnahan promised his State Fair breakfast audience that Missouri's agricultural future in biotech will be like Silicon Valley in the computer industry." (Taxpayer to Mel: Cash that Monsanto check. Quick.)

Or I could review the successful boycott of GMO foods in Europe, which has resulted in the world's two largest processors refusing to buy American crops. Unilever and Nestle UK are creating a major fuss with this, by the way, because the American government insists that Frankenfoods are no different than regular foods.

Or I could remind you that the only way to know what's in your food is to find out who grows it. There are sources for non-GMO soybeans and corn, but you have to ask the farmer to be sure.

But instead of going over one of those topics, I'm going back to the hawthorns, and my neighbor's field.

Our hawthorns are dying, and his GMO soybeans are thriving. Our trees didn't mean much to society or to business, but they provided us with early blooms in the spring, and they absorbed some noise from the interstate and they made a nice visual break on the edge of the field.

Somebody thought enough of the hawthorn back in 1923 to nominate it as the state "floral emblem." It's an old state symbol -- first after our state seal and state flag, and pre-dating by many years our state bird (the bluebird) and our state tree (the dogwood) and our state musical instrument (the violin) and all the others we teach our fourth-graders.

The hawthorns -- aka haws -- according to our tree book, are members of the rose family. To the rabbits, quail and mice who live in that woods, they provide a thorny protection and berries for winter food. Don't think the critters will feast on soybeans. Our neighbor's combines pull every last one off the field, leaving it bare as a desert.

Our trees weren't really worth much -- even $100 for all of them would be hard to prove in court. But, our neighbor's soybeans are worthless, too, and he's got a lot more invested. Looks like the only winner is -- you guessed it -- Monsanto.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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