Whatever its faults, the seed company Monsanto does employ some very smart people, who have a keen understanding of plant genetics. Given that, I've long wondered why the company has been so blindsided by the fairly basic idea that weeds evolve. Did anyone really expect that, when faced with a pressure that threatened their existence, the weeds wouldn't adapt and become resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide?
Apparently, that's exactly what they expected, according to a story on NPR's website.
Daniel Charles interviewed several people who were employed by Monsanto at the time the company released Roundup-tolerant soybeans back in 1996. He found a single, coherent cause of this very strange oversight. Shorter version: Monsanto got so blinded by past performance and its own personal experience that, as an institution, it started to assume nothing would ever change.
First, the company had been selling Roundup for years without any problems. Second, and perhaps most important, the company's scientists had just spent more than a decade, and many millions of dollars, trying to create the Roundup-resistant plants that they desperately wanted — soybeans and cotton and corn. It had been incredibly difficult. When I interviewed former Monsanto scientists for my book on biotech crops, one of them called it the company's "Manhattan Project."
Personally, I find that first assumption particularly egregious. Weeds do best at building resistance to herbicides when the same herbicide is being liberally applied to the same land year after year after year. In order to assume that this behavior wouldn't be the outcome of combining Roundup and Roundup Ready crops, Monsanto would almost have to assume that those products wouldn't be terribly effective. After all, if you expect that combination to work (and work well) why would you then expect farmers to bother with using herbicide sparingly, or varying the type of herbicide they used?
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.