Aliens Among Us

This isn’t the movies. It’s real life. Surrounding you left and right. But you don’t see it — any more than Dr. Kate Lloyd and her team of Norwegian expeditionaries recognize The Thing.
    Through October, the local aliens have gilded the countryside, improving your vista as you travel Maryland highways. Lately, the gold has been fading to sere brown. In the last days of October, farmers will drive their combines into the fields, harvesting soybeans that they hope will bring as much as $15 a bushel at market.
    This summer, about 485,000 acres of soybeans grew in Maryland. Soybeans are the state’s largest field planting. Farmers in five Southern Maryland counties, including Jeff Griffith in Anne Arundel and Walt Wells in Calvert, planted 39,000 acres in 2009. Nearly all those beans are genetically modified organisms created in the test tube to improve on nature.
    Corn, Maryland’s second biggest planting, now also grows from genetically modified seed. So does canola and alfalfa.
    Since the mid 1990s, corporate scientists have been inserting new — and sometimes odd — genes into the DNA of plants to create hybrids with desirable traits. Genetic engineering enables changes that are much quicker and more precise than traditional methods of selective, or cross, breeding plants and animals.
    The possibilities are enormous. Plants could be engineered to tolerate drought. The DNA of grain could be altered for salt tolerance as seas rise on our warming planet. Feeding the world has been the promise of companies since they began selling the technology.
    But as of now, the main value of nearly all genetically modified plants is making farming easier by helping to fight insects or to tolerate herbicides sold by the same companies that sell the seed.

This Thing May Be E.T.

    “They’re all GMO,” says third-generation Anne Arundel farmer Jeff Griffith of Lothian of his 250 acres of beans. “Soon all the world’s soybean crop will be GMO.”
    As Griffith sees it, GMOs are not The Thing of science fiction. Instead, they’re the good aliens of science fact.

“Crops have been genetically modified forever,” says farmer Jeff Griffiths, whose 250 acres of soybeans are the GMOs.

    Roundup Ready soybeans make the inevitable process of spraying soybean fields to fight weeds safer and easier, Griffith says, though resistant weeds crop up, requiring ever-more-potent chemicals.
    Genetic modifications are also making the plants hardier and slowly raising yields, he adds.
    He sees genetic engineering as the latest progression of a very old science.
    “Crops have been genetically modified forever,” says Griffiths, who earned a degree in agricultural production at the University of Maryland. “The purpose of the science of plant breeding has always been to modify plants.”
    In Prince Frederick, farmer Walt Wells credits Roundup Ready beans with helping keep his wife Susie’s 325-acre farm in the family’s hands.
    “Farmers are getting fewer,” says Wells, who’s been farming for over 40 years, starting on his father’s farm in Huntingtown. “I don’t know what they’re going to do with all this land.”
    Wells keeps some of that Calvert farmland from going to development, working six farms in addition to the family farm. Griffith and his father farm nine farms plus their own two.
    For both Griffith and Wells, grain is one of several crops replacing tobacco. None is as reliable as tobacco, Griffith says, or as profitable. He’d be growing it still had not the market been bought out.
    Like Griffith, Wells gets a bit of an edge from GMO soybeans.
    “They make it a lot easier,” he says, because he only has to spray them once in their months in his fields. When the fast-growing plants canopy the rows, he rolls through, dowsing them with Roundup. Because these beans are Roundup Ready, they aren’t fazed by the chemical that kills every other plant around them.

Birth of an Alien

    Roundup Ready beans may behave like ET in Maryland fields, but the story of their birth puts them in the company of Frankenstein’s monster.
    Their corporate parent, Monsanto, achieved 20th century fame and notoriety as a chemical company. Its creation of another alien, PCBs, bequeathed a global legacy of toxicity. Less than a quarter-mile from where Wells’ soybeans grow, PCBs linger in the fatty tissues of Patuxent River fish.

“Farmers are getting fewer,” says Walt Wells, who credits genetically modified soybeans with helping keep his wife Susie’s 325-acre farm in the family’s hands.

    From chemical company, Monsanto used recombinant DNA wizardry worthy of Harry Potter to recreate itself first as a life-science company promising to feed the world and now as a global seed king selling green-tinted technologies “that improve farm productivity and food quality.”
    The Monsanto genetic engineers who devised herbicide tolerance found the link they were missing in a waste treatment pond behind a Roundup manufacturing plant.
    That’s the story told by the scientists to Bay Weekly co-founder Bill Lambrecht and reported in his 2001 book Dinner at the New Gene Café.
    Roundup works by blocking a particular enzyme in plants. The missing link was a gene the block could ride on.
    “For years, the microbe had sat there in toxic ooze in a fenced-off plot, toughening itself by eating Roundup, which it found nutritious,” Lambrecht wrote. “If there was anything on earth unafraid of Roundup, it was this little microbe that ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They isolated this little fellow, replicated it millions of times, and that’s what’s used in engineered soybeans today.”
    Roundup Ready soybeans have led to other patented seeds, among them the Roundup Ready to Yield beans nearing harvest in Griffith’s fields. Monsanto sells its patented seeds itself, through its own seed companies and through other seed sellers whom it licenses for a fee. The seeds also carry a technology fee paid by the farmer who buys them. All together, the Roundup/Roundup Ready package has brought Monsanto a huge return.
    The patent has been so closely held that a farmer who buys Roundup Ready seed can go to jail for saving seeds from this year’s harvest to plant the next. “That and the technology fee are two of things that bother farmers,” Griffith says. “I pay more, but I hope to get my money’s worth at harvest.”

Into the World

    Harvest time comes when the bushy bean plant has faded to brown and its gold beans turned pellet-hard and round.
    Wells will store much of his harvest in silos on the farm, waiting for his price. Griffith, whose family farms already house 13 tobacco barns, hasn’t invested in grain storage silos. Both farmers sell some of the crop on contract or futures.
    Both will truck them to the Purdue grain elevator in Lothian. From there, many of the golden beans will go to the Purdue crushing plant at Norfolk where oil is extracted from the pulp, which can be used in animal food. There are many other possible futures for these Chesapeake Country beans.
    “Soybeans have thousand of uses,” Wells says. “They tell me they’re even used in car steering wheels.”
    Versatility may have been why the Chinese, who began cultivating soybeans 3,000 years ago, called them Great Treasure.
    The list of their uses spans the alphabet: animal feed; baby formula; candy; doughnut mix; margarine; mayonnaise; noodles; sausage casings; soy milk; and shortening. We also eat soybeans, but not genetically modified ones, as edamame, roasted nut-like beans, miso, soy sauce and tofu.
    The alphabet of their uses goes far beyond foods. Among them: adhesives; asphalt; cosmetics; fire-extinguisher foam; linoleum; paint; plastics; shampoo; and waterproof cement.
    Seventy-five to 80 percent of processed food in the U.S. contains GMOs, according to the Grocery Manufacturers of America. GMOs have infiltrated America’s fields and diets with little fanfare or attention.
    Package labels won’t tell you. The Food and Drug Administration has maintained since 1992 that gene-altered food is substantially equivalent to food produced conventionally, so no label is required.
    That’s not the case in much of the developed world. Europe, Japan, Australia, Russia and even authoritarian China require labeling of food containing modified ingredients.
    America’s rationale is at odds with public opinion as well as with international practice. In June, an ABC-News poll found that more than nine in 10 Americans think that the government should mandate labels.
    Public sentiment, combined with the Agriculture Departments approval of genetically modified alfalfa earlier this year, is sowing seeds of change.
    What’s the worry? GMO technology goes beyond hybrid plants to create mutants that have never before existed in nature. Thus there is no way of anticipating their effects. Could they turn into eco-system dominators, like kudzu or snakeheads? Nobody knows.
    No ill effects on human health have been proved, but engineered food crops remain off-limits in much of the world.
    Some uses have been positive for the American environment, especially the reduction of pesticides in growing GMO cotton. On the other hand, at least 21 herbicide-resistant superweeds have evolved, infesting 11 million acres. The superweeds bred in the wild when pollen from some modified open-pollinating crops, like corn and canola, crossed with wild plants.
    In the Just Label It campaign, a broad alliance of food safety, environmental and consumer organizations is calling on the FDA to order labeling of genetically modified food. The campaign, organized by The Environmental Working Group and backed by heavies like Whole Foods, also focuses on public education.
    “What we want to do is get back to some basics here,” Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, told Bay Weekly. “The most basic thing is that people want to know what’s in their food.”
    And in their fields.