Seeds of Discontent: A Texas Organic Cotton Farmer Takes On Monsanto
This story was produced as part of a joint venture with Reporting Texas, an online publication at the University of Texas-Austin’s School of Journalism.
Through the windows of LaRhea Pepper’s pickup, turnrows of blooming Texas cotton stretched to the horizon under an impeccably blue sky. We barreled down a dirt road toward her brother-in-law Carl’s farm, a tall cloud of dust kicking up behind us. Around LaRhea’s neck, a tiny bale of cotton at the end of a silver chain bounced as she maneuvered the dips in the road. “Help yourself to some pecans,” she said, pointing to a Ziploc bag in the cup holder. Her cellphone rang, and the Addams Family theme song filled the cabin. When LaRhea finished the call, I asked why she had decided to join a class-action lawsuit against biotechnology giant Monsanto.
For a small organic farmer on the high plains of Texas, challenging Monsanto is tantamount to questioning the power and promise of biotechnology, which has captured the imagination of traditional cotton farmers. In Texas, 91 percent of cotton is now genetically modified. Nationwide, the percentage is 94. Though a number of biotech companies produce genetically modified seeds, St. Louis-based Monsanto has emerged as the worldwide leader. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that more than 90 percent of the genetically modified seed planted in Texas contained the Roundup Ready gene—the intellectual property of Monsanto.
The Roundup Ready gene, which modifies crops to tolerate the glyphosate herbicide Roundup, was hailed as a miracle for farmers when commercially introduced in 1996. The combination made weed control simple, flexible, and eliminated the need to till fields, improving soil conservation. Roundup was incredibly effective in its early years, yet recent studies documenting such risks as Roundup-resistant superweeds have tempered enthusiasm for genetically modified seeds among some scientists and traditional farmers. For organic farmers, the threat from Roundup Ready seeds is more basic: contamination. With widespread use of Roundup Ready seeds, it’s become increasingly difficult for organic farmers to isolate their operations from their neighbors’ genetically modified crops.
LaRhea (pronounced luh-RAY), a native of O’Donnell, Texas, and a third-generation cotton farmer, has focused her concerns about contamination on Monsanto. As a USDA-certified farmer, she has committed to produce cotton without synthetic chemicals or genetically modified organisms. That the high plains are covered, quite literally, with genetically modified seeds creates a unique challenge for LaRhea and her organic colleagues. Under current patent law, organic farmers are responsible for keeping genetically modified varieties out of their fields. Failure to do so puts farmers in violation of patent law and exposes them to a potential lawsuit, and should the contamination exceed 5 percent, it could cost them organic certification.
“Let me put it this way,” LaRhea said. “None of us farmers want to stand up and admit that we’re contaminated, but I’ve got a lot less at stake than most,” she said, noting that her children are now grown and on their own. She lifted her hands off the steering wheel and into the air. “I’m admitting I’m contaminated.”
LaRhea isn’t the only one: The truth is, especially on the high plains, most organic cotton farmers know their crops are contaminated. But contamination is only one of several challenges from genetically modified seeds. Organic farmers also fret about chemical drift, unintended propagation, and the effects of biotechnology on family farms, employment, and rural infrastructure. Though all organic farmers I spoke with expressed some concern over the presence of biotech varieties, not all agreed on what should be done. For LaRhea, signing onto the lawsuit against Monsanto was an obvious first step.
Two years ago, she joined more than 60 organic and non-organic farmers, seed businesses, and agricultural trade organizations across the country, led by lead plaintiff Jim Gerritsen. The case, Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association et al. (OSGATA) v. Monsanto, asked the courts to protect them if any of the plaintiffs’ farms become unintentionally contaminated. On the long list of plaintiffs, LaRhea was the only Texan.
In a West Texas community deeply bound by faith, scarcity of rain, and the collective uncertainty common to farmers, signing on to the lawsuit puts LaRhea across the fence from most of her fellow cotton growers, and many of her long-time neighbors and friends. Some see her efforts, as one farmer put it, as “a simple waste of good time.”
“That’s not our thing,” said Kelly Pepper, LaRhea’s brother-in-law and manager of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative (TOCMC). The cooperative, founded by LaRhea in 1993, includes 30 farmers who grow between 10,000 and 15,000 acres of organic cotton. The organization is responsible for 90 percent of the organic cotton grown in the United States. And while co-op members have repeatedly stated their support for LaRhea, the organization declined to join the lawsuit. “We let individuals do what they want, and we stick to a pretty narrow agenda,” Kelly said.
“You’re not going to beat Monsanto in court, you’re not going to beat them in the political arena,” said Jimmy Wedel, president of co-op. “I don’t mind fighting battles, but I don’t fight battles I know I can’t win.”
Yet for LaRhea, the controversy surrounding Monsanto is personal and unquestionably worth the fight. In 2005, LaRhea lost her husband, Terry Pepper, to gliobastoma multiforme, the most aggressive malignant brain tumor known in humans. Terry, who died at age 50, was predisposed to cancer—his father died of leukemia at age 57—but there was one known risk factor associated with gliobastoma multiforme that was particularly upsetting for LaRhea: exposure to pesticides. Though there is no evidence to suggest that pesticides caused Terry’s cancer, LaRhea finds it hard to believe they didn’t play a role. “Terry is the fire in my belly,” she said. “We were always committed to organic, but his death marked a new page for me—organic has now become a matter of life and death.”
The case against Monsanto, filed in federal court for the southern district of New York in April 2011, was thrown out in February 2012, less than a month after the first hearing. The case is currently being heard in the Court of Appeals in the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C. In the initial ruling, Judge Naomi Buchwald cited lack of merit, saying she couldn’t rule on a preemptive lawsuit. Still, the plaintiffs have reason to fear Monsanto. To date, the company has filed 142 lawsuits against farmers for alleged violation of its patents, with recorded judgments of $21.6 million.
None of those cases have been brought against organic farmers. But organic farmers have the same legal exposure as any other farmer. “Our clients don’t want a fight with Monsanto,” said OSGATA lawyer Daniel Ravicher in a statement issued in 2011, “they just want to be protected from the threat they will be contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically modified seed and then be accused of patent infringement.”
In July 2012, a smaller group of farmers appealed Judge Buchwald’s ruling. During the first round of appellate hearings, Monsanto lawyer Seth Waxman indicated that the company had developed a new standard for prosecuting farmers that hinged on whether the farmer was taking advantage of the technology he or she had unintentionally acquired. “The cases Monsanto brings are cases in which it has come to learn that the farmer is not purchasing any Roundup Ready seed, but is spraying his fields with Roundup, and the plants are surviving,” he said, indicating that in such a case, the farmer would be knowingly taking advantage of the presence of biotech seeds.
If Monsanto sticks to that standard, it could portend fewer lawsuits filed against farmers in the future. But organic farmers have other concerns, such as the movement of genetically modified (GM) seeds and the associated chemicals onto organic farms. As LaRhea explained, “Monsanto is effectively taking away the option of an inclusive [strategy] that allows for GM and non-GM farming to co-exist.”
Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher denied that the company was eliminating the possibility for diverse methods of production. “Coexistence of different agricultural production methods working effectively side by side is well established and has a long, successful history in agriculture,” he said in a telephone interview.
The cotton industry is big business in Texas. The Texas Department of Agriculture estimates that the industry is worth $1.7 billion. In 2011, Texas farmers planted 7.1 million acres of cotton, almost half of all the cotton grown in the United States. The same year, despite losing more than 60 percent of the year’s crop to the worst single drought year in state history, Texas still accounted for more than a third of the national harvest. The year before, in weather conditions closer to average, Texas harvested more than 50 percent of the nation’s cotton.
Organic cotton has been a steadily growing market in the past decade. In 2009-2010, organic cotton farmers worldwide produced nearly 242,000 metric tons of cotton, up from 37,800 metric tons in 2005. In 2007, Walmart was the leading buyer of organic cotton. In 2011, it was clothing supplier H&M. Nike, which now offers an all-organic line of clothing, has been one of the top three buyers the past four years, purchasing 16 million pounds in 2011.
The high plains, a region of 41 counties on the caprock that loosely surrounds the cities of Lubbock and Amarillo, produces 90 percent of all the organic cotton grown in the United States. The same region, known for its sandy loam soil, the Texas Tech Red Raiders, and rock pioneer Buddy Holly, is also responsible for 64 percent of all conventional cotton grown in Texas.
While there is little visible difference between the organic and conventional plants that cover an estimated 3.7 million acres across the “largest contiguous cotton patch in the world,” a simple DNA test performed by inspectors at the Texas Department of Agriculture puts cotton into two distinct categories: cotton that is Roundup Ready and cotton that is not.
Although unintentional seed contamination between these groups was the primary concern expressed by farmers in the OGSATA lawsuit, the ubiquitous presence of genetically modified cottonseed poses two additional threats that, for many farmers on the high plains, are much more tangible.
The first involves the spread of unwanted chemicals. The USDA estimates that between 1996 and 2007, the amount of glyphosate applied per acre per crop rose 200 percent.
As winds pass over the high plains, they pick up herbicide sprayed over Roundup Ready plots and drop it on fields that contain organic or conventional cotton—Roundup unReady by design—often with devastating effects for those crops. At its worst, chemical drift will kill a non-biotech crop. The lowest levels of contamination—the most insidious and therefore damaging, as they are nearly impossible to detect—will cause a two- or three-week delay in plant development. If a fall freeze comes early, effectively stopping the growth of the plant, those weeks of lag can lead to a critical drop in production for organic farmers.
Last year, Jimmy Wedel and his wife, Betty, say they lost 3,000 pounds of cotton to chemical drift. The incident wasn’t Wedel’s first bout with unwanted chemicals. After filing a number of complaints with the Texas Department of Agriculture in years past, he’s not optimistic that anything will change. “I’ll tell you what will happen if I file a report,” he said. “Either TDA will send me a letter saying they couldn’t pinpoint the source or they’ll tell me they could and give me all the information I need to sue. I just don’t have that money.”
Monsanto denies claims that it should be held responsible for chemical drift, pointing out that a number of generic-brand glyphosate formulas on the market perform the same function as Roundup. “We are one manufacturer in a crowded market,” said Monsanto spokesperson John Combest.
Yet one thing seems clear: As a pioneer of the biotech movement, with earnings of $11.8 billion in 2011, Monsanto is strides ahead of most competition. In 2011, the ETC Group estimated that just three biotech corporations—Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta—collectively held 53 percent of the global genetically modified seed market, 27 percent by Monsanto alone. But if you look at the consolidation of the technology inserted into those seeds—the genes that allow for herbicide or pesticide resistance—the numbers are much higher. In 2012, the USDA estimated that 96 percent of genetically modified seeds planted in the U.S. contained Roundup Read or Bt technology, both developed by, and necessitating technology fees paid to, Monsanto.
The second major concern among organic farmers is the propagation of genetically modified seed itself. Most farming members of the organic cotton growers co-op assume that their farms are contaminated at a rate of 1 to 3 percent, though not all farmers interviewed for this story had been tested by the Texas Department of Agriculture.
“Fact of the matter is contamination is going to happen,” said Steve Verett, executive director of Plains Cotton Growers, and a first cousin to brothers Terry, Kelly and Carl Pepper. “Roundup can’t be found in the fiber, but [contamination] is a problem turnrow to turnrow. And you can’t stop those bees from flying around.”
“If you don’t know your crop is contaminated, it can reproduce,” explains Dr. Jane Dever, a geneticist and cotton breeder at the Texas A&M Agrilife Cotton Breeding Facility in Lubbock. Dever calls this “the selecting and testing bias,” a phenomenon closely related to chemical drift. Basically, if a crop is affected by chemical drift, those plants that have an engineered resistance to the chemicals will look better and grow taller than the organic plants that lack resistance. In this scenario, an organic farmer capturing seed for subsequent planting or selecting plants to breed could inadvertently select a genetically modified plant and reintroduce it into their organic plot.
“The onus in this scenario is on us to keep that technology out of our varieties,” Dever said. “And that’s a threat.”
“We call those plants tattletales,” said Eric Herm, 39, an organic farmer and author of two books on sustainability and agriculture. “But you can’t always catch them.” This is what plaintiffs in OSGATA et al. v. Monsanto refer to as “technological trespass.”
The growth of the biotech industry poses other, less tangible threats to farming life on the high plains. Some organic farmers fear that biotechnology has fundamentally changed the role of the family farm in modern agriculture.
Slowly guiding his tractor through a field he named “Little China” for its location on the eastern end of his property, organic farmer Eric Herm says genetically modified seed has harmed the small towns on the high plains. “Biotech kills rural infrastructure,” he said. “When Monsanto bought up those smaller seed companies, a lot of extra workers took off.” Biotechnology also reduced the number of farm hands employed in the fields. “Organic requires a lot more manual labor,” he said. “And with [genetically modified organisms], all you need is one guy in a spray boom.”
The population of O’Donnell has slowly declined over the years, a trend that LaRhea attributes in part to the shift away from manually intensive agriculture and to the consolidation of the industry by large corporations. The declining population has even affected the town’s beloved football team. “The football team in O’Donnell has gone from 11- to 6-man!” she said, raising her voice.
For those on the biotech side, the shift toward a less laborious agriculture has been welcomed. “[GM] was appealing as it would slow erosion and save moisture in the soil. Before we weeded with a plow or did hand hoeing,” said Verett of the Plains Cotton Growers. “Everything points to biotech being a positive impact on the high plains.”
For Monsanto, the declining population of O’Donnell says nothing about the impact of biotechnology. “We don’t succeed if [family farms] don’t,” said Janice Person, public affairs officer for Monsanto. “They are a major commitment of ours and, in our experience, most family farmers are having trouble finding the labor they need.”
LaRhea, however, describes Monsanto as a bully in farming communities. Her stance against biotechnology, she explains, has made her the target of proponents of genetically modified cotton in towns like O’Donnell. “I’ve been called a boll weevil lover and much worse,” she said, noting that she had bricks thrown through her office window in 1994 when she opposed mandatory boll weevil spraying. “People in this community seem to think I’m threatening our economic sustainability by challenging Monsanto.”
Since returning to the farm eight years ago, farmer Herm has relied heavily on the counsel and guidance of those senior members of the organic farmers’ co-op. He hopes that he is part of a return migration that would put young and eco-conscious farmers back in Texas cotton fields. “I’m just a pup in the world of cotton farming,” he said. “And I can’t imagine anything more valuable than growing [crops]in a way that preserves our land.” Yet he knows all too well how difficult it can be.
Cotton bounty on the high plains is made and unmade by the clouds that capriciously pass over the empty, arid farmland. Organic or not, cotton farmers have been devastated by debilitating droughts and have been forced to sell their land when cotton prices sunk too low for them to break even. “The farmers up here are a certain breed,” Herm said, shaking his head. “If it’s not the finances, it’s the isolation, the one rain a year, or watching a good crop burn up in August, that will get you.”
It is a humbling practice, he says, built upon the defeats and successes that farmers on the high plains have learned to take in stride. Many have turned to religion to temper their doubts, leaving the fate of their cotton to a power they believe to be more forgiving than the temperamental weather patterns of northern Texas. As one particularly successful organic farmer put it, “I had nothing to do with that cotton. The good Lord got me here.”
It was the lunchtime rush at Rosales Burrito Express, and a small crowd gathered in the six-table restaurant on the outskirts of O’Donnell. As LaRhea prepared to pay the check, the voice of a Roundup Ready farmer boomed from across the small room. “How much chemistry have you taken, LaRhea?” he asked, in a tone reminiscent of the rangy Sam Elliott. A number of heads turned his way. LaRhea, familiar with the man, looked to his corner with a smile and after pausing, she responded. “None.”
It was an answer he had anticipated, and he nodded. He knew that LaRhea saw no place for pesticides in cotton production. “You know me,” she said. “I think this problem deserves a holistic solution.” He was clearly familiar with LaRhea’s agenda, but saw no use in dividing farmers by their production methods. “Organic or not, if you’re not one of the chosen, you’re going to screw things up,” he said, mumbling something under his breath about the fate of humankind.
She picked up my jacket off the chair back, indicating her intention to leave. “Your grace is invaluable in agriculture, LaRhea,” he said while keeping his gaze on his meal. With the same cordial smile, she headed for the door. “I’ll tell dad you said hello.”
Stepping into a clear afternoon on the high plains, she pulled on her sunglasses. Pieces of loose cotton blew across O’Donnell’s empty main road. “It’s all a bit eerie, isn’t it?” she asked, humming the beginning notes from The Twilight Zone. “We’re all polite to one another, but we’re living in a fallen world where Monsanto controls everything,” she said.
“That right there is why my name is on this lawsuit.”