by Allen R. Myerson
The cotton, produced by Monsanto, contains a gene for resistance to the company's herbicide glyphosate, sold as Roundup. It should simplify weed control by allowing farmers to apply the herbicide directly to their fields without harming the cotton.
Some 320 000 hectares across the US were planted with the cotton this season, its first on the market. Most farmers are happy with the results. But in Mississippi, and to some extent in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana, entire fields have shed their bolls--the fluffy part harvested for fibre--or have developed small, malformed bolls.
Robert McCarty, director of Mississippi's Bureau of Plant Industry in Starkville, says that only Monsanto plants seem to have failed, over an area totalling 12 000 hectares. "Cotton right across the road of a different variety was not affected," he says.
Monsanto maintains that only a few thousand hectares are involved, and argues that malformed bolls have also been seen with other varieties. But Lisa Drake, a spokeswoman at Monsanto's headquarters in St Louis, Missouri, accepts that plants that have dropped bolls look similar to those damaged in tests involving very large doses of herbicide. She speculates that an abnormally cold, wet spring in Mississippi stressed some plants and reduced their herbicide tolerance.
Charles Merkel, a Mississippi lawyer representing about a dozen cotton farmers, accuses Monsanto of trying to play down the problem. He claims that his clients' losses alone may total millions of dollars.