Weed It and Weep

Monsanto, herbicides, and the corporatization of US agriculture

by Kayli Wren

Illustration by Pia Mileaf-Patel

published October 19, 2018

“We’ve got to turn back 50, 60 years of the way we’re doing agriculture. But it can be done, and I think we have to,” Antonio DiTommaso, professor at the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, told the Independent. DiTommaso was talking about weed management in the United States and the use of herbicides on large farms. In the past few decades, huge agricultural corporations like Monsanto have genetically engineered seeds to resist herbicides so that farmers can spray chemicals directly over their fields, kill the weeds, and leave the crops. This practice requires significantly less human labor than hand weeding or tilling a field, and it also decreases the erosion that results from disrupting soil to tear up weeds. Because of these environmental and efficiency benefits, DiTommaso recognizes herbicides as a valuable agricultural tool. But he believes they have been overused: “As a weed scientist, I do feel that there is a place for herbicides. But ideally it should be our last resort.”

DiTommaso calls the pattern of increased reliance on chemicals in farming “the pesticide treadmill.” Weeds adapt, and major weeds such as palmer amaranth and waterhemp are now resistant to major herbicides such as Roundup. The agricultural industry responds to these harder-to-kill weeds by developing new herbicides and genetically engineering crops to survive chemicals made in the last 50 years, such as Dicamba. DiTommaso thinks there is a better way to address weeds than this pattern of solving one problem with another. Using herbicides responsibly would mean using them in tandem with other, sustainable agricultural methods to create a more holistic system. In DiTommaso’s vision, farmers would use an integrated system of crop rotation and increase diversity in their field by using cover crops, which are grown to enrich and protect the soil instead of yielding produce. These techniques would keep weeds “off balance” and prevent them from adapting to a particular growing environment.

The issue with sustainable farming is time and money, DiTommaso says; it’s more expensive and requires more human labor to grow food without chemicals. In our current agricultural system, corporate giants like Monsanto create a cyclical dependence on herbicides and their own seed products. They use intellectual property law to squeeze out small farmers and further dominate an industry that already heavily favors them through economic policies like government subsidies. The resulting concentration of wealth and power exacerbates unsustainable agricultural practices with little regard for land or human health and pressures smaller-scale, environmentally conscious farmers to conform. These are some of the obstacles faced by people looking to turn back the clock to a sustainable and holistic vision of agricultural production.




When Monsanto invented and patented the Roundup-resistant seed, they sold it at three times the price of normal seed and required that any buyers purchase new seeds each year. By 2010, 90 percent of soybeans and 70 percent of corn and cotton in the US contained the Roundup-resistant trait, meaning that the vast majority of these crops were coming from Monsanto and being sprayed with herbicides. Because the herbicides and genetically engineered seeds come as a package deal, there is a real danger for farmers who don’t buy in. Volatile herbicides such as Dicamba are prone to spreading on the wind, so if one farmer buys the expensive herbicide-resistant seeds, their neighbors risk losing any natural crops to airborne plant poison.

Two court cases over the last 15 years show how legal systems support huge corporations over small farmers and prop up harmful industrial monopolies. In 1999, Monsanto sued Canadian canola farmer Percy Schmeiser for violating their seed patent. The Canadian court case found Schmeiser guilty for reusing Monsanto seed without paying the fee. The catch was that Schmeiser’s crop was only Roundup-resistant because Roundup-resistant seeds blew into his fields from a neighbor’s farm. The case set the following precedent: If patented seeds cross-pollinate into a farmer’s field, that farmer must alert Monsanto to come remove the Roundup-resistant seeds instead of reusing the seed like normal. Monsanto has introduced a new product into the industry, and as a result, farmers must change their behavior or risk being sued by a corporate giant, a sure-fire path towards bankruptcy.

In a 2013 US Supreme Court case popularly dubbed “David vs. Goliath,” Monsanto sued 75-year-old Indiana farmer Hugh Bowman for using and reusing their Roundup-resistant seed without paying. Bowman had purchased those seeds from a local grain elevator and simply figured the multinational corporation wouldn’t care. “I couldn’t imagine that they’d give a rat’s behind,” he said. The Court declared Bowman guilty. David Snively, Monsanto’s executive vice president, celebrated the win as motivation for further inventions and for “allowing America to keep its competitive edge.” Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Food Safety, lamented the Court’s decision: “This decision is a setback for the nation’s farmers… The Court chose to protect Monsanto over farmers.”  In these cases, the US legal system gave an already powerful company more power to squeeze out small farmers economically and dominate the industry.




Jessica Petrie and Lincoln Sawyer are two organic farmers for whom using herbicides is out of the question. Fifteen years ago, Sawyer and his wife left their jobs in New York and moved to a piece of family-owned land in Pennsylvania to practice what they believed in: responsible and sustainable agriculture. They now work a 40-acre farm in Western Massachusetts and sell produce at a farmers market. Sawyer’s aversion to herbicides is more intuitive than anything. “On a basic level, the idea of something that has a skull with an X through it on the container doesn’t seem like you should spread it where you’re going to grow food,” he told the Independent.

Petrie inherited her family’s land in Massachusetts when her father passed away four years ago. She decided to return to her childhood home, restore the gardens where she grew up, and revive her family’s dream of self-sufficiency. She sells produce to five nearby families and aims to make a career of farming. “I believe in self sustenance and the symbiotic-ness of nature,” Petrie told the Independent. Petrie’s zucchini, pumpkin, and squash plants have been infested with stink bugs for three years, but she says using pesticides isn’t an option. There are too many negative implications for how it would affect the food, her water source down the hill, the soil, the bird population, and the surrounding duck ponds. Petrie even makes her own fertilizers from compost, worm castings, and bunny poop. She says the safe and natural route is worth it, adding, “my customers learn to be grateful for what is available and have a greater respect for their food.”

Organic, locally grown food has a better chance of being both healthier for humans and more environmentally conscious than food grown on faraway farms. Transporting food long distances to supermarkets uses fossil fuels and allows the produce to lose nutrients. Local food grown without fertilizers or pesticides is generally fresher, produces less plastic waste, and doesn’t contaminate the soil with chemicals. Unfortunately, many people don’t have the option to radically change their lifestyles, purchase property, and live their values around food. And even for people like Petrie and Sawyer, who are able to, it is still financially difficult to make healthy and sustainable choices, such as going herbicide-free. In Petrie’s experience, it’s initially cheaper not to buy herbicides, but in the end, the alternatives (hand weeding and using hay as mulch) are more costly because they require so many more hours of labor. The major financial strain for Sawyer comes from corporate dominance in agriculture: ‘Normal’ market prices (in consumers’ minds) are dictated by huge corporations who have nothing to do with small-scale farming practices. Sawyer’s pork is $9 to $10 per pound, while the average supermarket price is under $5. “People are willing to pay more, but I’m still barely making money on that. It just doesn’t reflect the real cost of growing food,” Sawyer says. And of course, many people simply can’t pay more; healthy food is financially less accessible than unhealthy food, both to produce and to eat.

Federal subsidies exacerbate the difference in production cost for small and large farms by redistributing tax dollars to the wealthiest farmers. The US government subsidizes certain crops, like corn, wheat, rice, and cotton, which end up benefiting large agricultural producers with wealth and income higher than most US households. The wealthiest three percent of large farms in the US receive more than one-third of all commodity subsidies, and smaller, organic farmers don’t benefit. The rich farms get richer, and the poor farms don’t.

Sawyer looks at monoliths like Monsanto and sees a cyclical trap for farmers. “They put the gene in there that’s resistant to the herbicide they make. So you have to buy their whole lineup. People go in debt at the beginning of the season, oftentimes to the company itself, in order to buy what they need to grow the stuff, and they hope to pay it off by the end of the season. It’s a pretty dark system, and I think it exploits farmers,” Sawyer says. Subsidies and court decisions like the ones in 2004 and 2013 are part of this system, one that allows giant corporations to dominate whole fields of agriculture.

DiTommaso, Sawyer, and Petrie believe that more people should be involved in growing food (more than the current two percent of the national population). Unfortunately, “We have inherited the idea that fewer farmers is better, that a step back from big, efficient farms would be silly and anti-growth,” Sawyer says. But he argues that there’s a better way to conceptualize an efficient food system—one that doesn’t treat agriculture as just an industry and values healthy and environmentally sustainable food production.


KAYLI WREN B‘20 regrets to inform you that Bayer, a German multinational pharmaceutical and chemical company, bought Monsanto for $66 billion this year, but it doesn’t change any of this.