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Monsanto In Arizona: Where The Agricultural Giant Wants To Be, And Where It Already Is

(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
An anti-Monsanto sign at a public meeting to discuss Monsanto's plans to build a greenhouse in Pima County.

The seed and chemical giant Monsanto bought 155 acres of land north of Tucson last year to test new corn varieties. In February, The Pima County Board of Supervisors will vote whether or not to support giving Monsanto a tax break on its new property.

That potential support has stirred up controversy for residents who don’t want Monsanto near their homes.

But, Monsanto seed has been grown and tested in the state and local farmers have seen the benefit.

Monsanto And Local Farmers

On Arnoldo Burruel’s farm in Marana, workers lead away brown and white speckled horses after a visit by the farm veterinarian.

“Ok he’s good," the veterinarian said about one horse. 

"Yeah, he’s a tough dude,” Burruel said.

It was a lucky visit for Burruel, because it’s been tough to nail down an appointment time – it’s also an expensive one, coming in at just over a grand.

“And then you swallow deep and wonder where that money’s gonna come from,” Burruel said, laughing.

But that unexpected cost is just one of many it takes to run his nearly 5,000 acre farm. And one of those is the yearly fee he pays seed companies to plant their genetically modified, or GMO, cotton crops.

“I’ll spend north of $200,000 on planting seed next year,” he said.

It’s money well-spent, Burruel said, because the genetically modified cottonseed that Monsanto introduced back in the 90's contains a gene that controls pests. And that saves him from spraying harsh pesticides, which he said have gone from 15 to 20 sprays a crop to just a few sprays a year.

“It’s not cheap to grow a GMO seed, but that expense, paying the technology fee, is probably about a third of what we were spending otherwise to control the pests and then there was no guarantee you were going to win that battle,” Burruel said.

His farm is also just across the street from the land sold to Monsanto for a seven-acre greenhouse. It will hold a corn-breeding facility where plants are grown in pots and studied.

Seed-Testing Across Arizona

Arizona’s farmers have been using and field-testing Monsanto products for decades.

University of Arizona crop specialist Randy Norton works with growers and seed companies like Monsanto to test different varieties every year.

"We will test different cotton varieties in different locations," Norton said. "We allow all the different seed companies to enter up to two varieties in our trials. So it might be 8-10 varieties in a trial that we test, and usually 8-10 different locations in Arizona."

He said it's an experiment to see which varieties do well in different parts of the state. The latest seeds have certain genes that use a bacteria found in other plants to counter pests that could wipe out acres of crops.

"We've seen a huge revolution in pest control in all major crops, not just cotton, but in corn, soybeans with the advent of transgenic technologies," Norton said. "It's really revolutionized how we control pests in the field, and it has made us more efficient in how we control pests."

He said the genetically modified seeds are tested for years before they are released into the market.

The field trials are highly contained, where the test crops are destroyed on-site, and the acreage is monitored a year after the growth. There are also borders that surround the test crops to stop any pollen getting out of the area. The borders are cotton crops that, Norton said, are like a sink that capture any wayward pollen before it goes outside the testing site.

Norton said he understands the concerns locals have and thinks Monsanto and the academic world have some ground to make up to help inform people on GMOs.

"They got behind the 8-ball," he said. "I think they realize that, I think they'll be the first ones to admit, 'Yeah we need to a better job of getting science-based information out to the public.' And the University, we can do a better job to allay some of these fears people might have about these things."

But even as the company works to repair its reputation, it may not be enough to change how locals feel about the agricultural giant in their backyard.

Locals Don't Support Potential Property Tax Break For Monsanto

Some Pima County residents don’t share Burruel or Norton’s positive view of GMO plants, as they showed en masse at a public meeting earlier this month where a county and Monsanto representative heard comments and questions.

Here’s a taste of how most of the two-hour meeting went:

“Now that I found out coming tonight to this meeting, that’s a given, Monsanto’s got the property,” one woman said.

“So your corn is unique enough to qualify for a patent yet you also claim that it’s substantially equivalent to conventionally grown vegetables, how can that be?” another local woman asked, saying she only grows and buys organic food.

“To have you come here is really a problem,” said a local businessman, who expressed concerns for the future.

“Because we have this perception of Monsanto’s history, I don’t want this to pass, I do not want you here at all,” a Pima County woman said. 

Of concern was the agreement written up for consideration of the Pima County board of supervisors. Essentially, it says the county will support Monsanto’s application to have the site be in a Free Trade Zone, in an arrangement that would significantly lower property taxes. In return, the company would update the county on its pesticide and water usage, as well as any activity outside of the greenhouse.

Monsanto representative Amanda McClerren said the company chose Arizona for the sunny growing climate and resources.

“So we’ll have significant reduction in the amount of land and water for the comparable field-based operations,” she said.

By coming out to Marana, McClerren said she hopes the company can fix an image problem caused by not being transparent in the past.

“What you’ve seen here tonight is a complete commitment to change that," she said after the first of four meetings. "And so I’m out here tonight and I’m out here for the next four sessions to engage in that dialogue. We want to be good partners for the community.”

UA professor Ken Feldmann has worked with and studied plant genetics for many years and said local concern comes from a perception that big companies like Monsanto are hiding something.

“Companys just operate like this, they keep things opaque until they cross their t’s and dot their i’s hoping it won’t cause as many problems and they’d figure it out later if they go forward, but for a lot of people it causes concerns and issues," Feldmann said. "But it’s perception.”

Feldmann referenced the GMO ban in some European countries and studies about GMOs that instill worries that Monsanto’s food products are harmful to the environment or people. But he said the concerns about today’s commercial agriculture aren’t based in science.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors will vote on the agreement with Monsanto Feb. 21.

Casey Kuhn reports from KJZZ’s West Valley Bureau. She comes to Phoenix from the Midwest, where she graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.Kuhn got her start in radio reporting in college at the community public radio station, WFHB. She volunteered there as a reporter and worked her way up to host the half-hour, daily news show. After graduating, she became a multimedia reporter at Bloomington's NPR/PBS station WFIU/WTIU, where she reported for and produced a weekly statewide news television show.Since moving to the Southwest, she’s discovered a passion for reporting on rural issues, agriculture and the diverse people who make up her community.Kuhn was born and raised in Cincinnati, where her parents instilled in her a love of baseball, dogs and good German beer. You’ll most likely find her around the Valley with a glass of prosecco in one hand and a graphic novel in the other.She finds the most compelling stories come from KJZZ’s listeners.