A question of coexistence: Lewistown neighbors lay bare national GMO debate

This story was published in the Great Falls Tribune and Lewistown News-Argus

The gravel road runs close to the old train trestle, then winds through cattle pastures and river bottoms. The South Moccasin Mountains loom to the east. About 15 miles outside of Lewistown, the roads dips into a gully, and above sits Ole Norgaard’s farmhouse.

Norgaard’s driveway circles a silver trailer. Inside, Norgaard opens a giant plastic tub filled with regionally adapted dark purple corn kernels, Montana Morado Maize, the pride of his organic farming operation.

Ole Norgaard

Ole Norgaard

Across the road, on the same recent February afternoon, Norgaard’s neighbor and friend, Paul Morse, backs up his skidder and hops out, his pack of five rambunctious dogs greeting him. Morse wears well-worn Carhartt bibs, splashed with the blue dye he adds to his Roundup herbicide. Patchy snow covers a nearby field planted with Roundup Ready alfalfa, which contains a trait genetically engineered in a lab to survive applications of the herbicide.

“This will be my first crop off of it, this spring,” Morse says.

While only a road separates these neighbors, their differing views on genetic engineering in agriculture reflect a larger divide. In Montana, with a climate largely unfavorable to some major commodity crops such as corn and soybeans, the planting of crops containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, was effectively delayed until the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2011, and then its Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2012. Now about 200,000 acres of the state are planted with GMO crops, including alfalfa and sugar beets, according to the Montana Department of Agriculture.

At the same time, Montana’s organic production is also increasing. The state ranks among the country’s top producers of organic wheat, dry peas, lentils and flax. The number of certified organic farms and ranches has steadily climbed since the USDA counted 144 in 2008. That year, the most recent for which data is available, there were about 215,000 acres of certified organic pasture and cropland.

But because GMOs aren’t allowed in organic agricultural production, the question, in Montana and across the country, is whether these two practices can coexist.

Norgaard, a tall and blonde native of Denmark, speaks with a quiet intensity. He’s adamantly against Roundup Ready crops and the herbicides they require, calling the technology agricultural “warfare” and “an easy fix” that “doesn’t solve the root of the problem.”

He grows several other organic crops in addition to purple corn, including alfalfa. He worries that Morse’s Roundup Ready alfalfa, the first perennial field crop to be commercialized with a genetically engineered trait, could contaminate his organic alfalfa. The patented genes in Roundup Ready alfalfa could find their way into Norgaard’s organic fields by way of wind or pollinating bees, two of the natural processes that further “gene flow.”

“It’ll be in my fields, too, to a certain degree,” Norgaard says. “And who is responsible for that? Because I don’t want it. And how are you going to clean that up?”

If that happens, and Norgaard’s unknowingly growing Roundup Ready alfalfa, he’d be infringing on Monsanto’s patent rights, and possibly subject to testing and litigation. Monsanto aggressively protects its patents, as evidenced by the ongoing U.S. Supreme Court case involving an Indiana farmer. The court’s deliberating whether patents on seeds extend beyond their first generation.

In 2011, the Montana Legislature passed a law to protect farmers and ranchers suspected of patent infringement. It set mandatory crop sampling procedures involving an independent third party, and before the issue can be taken to court, the parties must go through an in-state mediation process.

While Norgaard doesn’t agree with Morse’s ranching practices, he’s sympathetic. “There is nothing wrong with what Paul is doing,” he says. “He’s doing what he thinks is right. He’s a good neighbor, he is.”

Across the road, Morse drives his diesel truck, bouncing through the field, rolling over cow pies. “That’s the smell of money!” he jests, steering the truck toward a line of hay bales.

Paul Morse

Paul Morse

The bales sit in neat rows. Morse climbs down from the truck and walks to the nearest bale. He grabs a fistful of yellow and shreds it. “Wheat, wheat—and cheat,” he says, yanking out chunks of the weed, matted and mangled amid the narrow straws of wheat stalks.

Cheat grass is Morse’s arch nemesis. He says the invasive plant makes up about 60 percent of this bale, up to 90 percent of others. The problem is so widespread that Morse sees Roundup as his only solution.

“Either buy bigger equipment to make it cheaper, or get smaller equipment and use the chemical to make it cheaper,” he says.

The “chemical”—glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup—doesn’t worry Morse much. He takes precautions, including wearing gloves while he sprays and using a bright blue dye to track it. “I don’t wear a Tyvex suit, I don’t wear a mask, and when it gets windy, you go home,” he says.

According to a 2012 study by Charles Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, herbicide-tolerant crops have increased herbicide use by 527 million pounds nationwide between 1996—when the first such crop, Roundup Ready soybeans, was commercialized—and 2011. Benbrook’s study also notes that there are now about 25 Roundup-resistant weeds infesting millions of acres around the country, and the presence of those so-called “superweeds” drives up herbicide use by as much as 50 percent.

Last summer, a researcher at the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station’s Southern Agricultural Research Center discovered Roundup-resistant kochia in several areas near Havre. The resistance developed from farmers relying on the herbicide to control the unruly weed in fallow wheat fields, not from applying it to a Roundup Ready crop.

But there eventually could be GMO wheat. Monsanto says its current work breeding new wheat varieties “will serve as the germplasm foundation in which new biotechnology traits could be introduced in the next decade.” In 2009, Monsanto acquired Montana wheat seed developer WestBred for $45 million.

The commercialization of GMO wheat would have huge implications in Montana. Wheat is the state’s leading cash crop. Last year, the 5.5 million acres of the state that grew wheat yielded a crop valued at $1.7 billion.

In talking about the tensions between GMOs and organics, Montana Department of Agriculture Director Ron de Yong often uses the words “coexistence” and “diversification.” He believes genetically engineered and organic production are two approaches in “an integrated system, and you can’t look at it as black and white.”

Two years ago, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack reconvened the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, charged with figuring out how best to encourage coexistence. One of the questions—which Norgaard echoes—is who pays farmers economically harmed by the unwanted presence of GMOs in their fields?

Last fall, the committee members, divided on the extent of the problem, delivered to Vilsack a report recommending that the USDA gather more data on gene flow and “fund a broad-based, comprehensive education and outreach initiative to strengthen the understanding of coexistence.” The National Organic Coalition responded to the recommendations with skepticism.

Back on Morse’s ranch, he drives his truck to another field, shoos his dog Bandit off the seat, gets out and kneels down to point out where the cheat grass is already coming in. He runs his hand through the stubbly mat, grinding stems between his fingers.

And across the road, Norgaard opens a package of organic pancake mix containing his purple Montana Morado Maize. A cloud of flour floats from his fingers as he rubs them together.