by Kurt Michael Friese (this post originally appeared on Grist)
Grinnell Heritage Farm is 152 years old. Andrew Dunham is the fifth generation of his family to work this land about 50 miles east of Des Moines. He is a direct descendant of Josiah Grinnell, founder of the town and the man Horace Greeley once famously quoted as having said, “Go west, young man, go west.” Andrew and his wife Melissa are a few months shy of receiving their formal certification as an organic farm.
Across the road, due north of their land, is a field of corn that is managed by the nearby Monsanto seed corn plant. In Iowa and anywhere commodity corn is grown, it is common practice around this time of year to use chemicals to control fungus. Often this is accomplished via the use of aerial application, commonly referred to as cropdusting. On July 6th, a rustic-looking old biplane swooped in to spray Monsanto’s field. To put it mildly, the pilot’s bombardiering skills were not what one would hope.
Dunham’s crew was in the field picking broccoli and spinruts (“turnip” backwards—a Japanese form of the root vegetable). They witnessed the plane as it failed to shut off its spray mechanism in time, and the fungicide drifted into their tree planting and hay field. “The hay ground is in the third year of transition and would have become organically certified on September 1st,” Andrew said. Now, probably not.
You’d think that this would be a clear-cut cause of action, as the legal folks would put it. But the clever folks at Monsanto hire the crop dusters as contractors, and they in turn use a corporate shell with no assets, so when something like this happens and a victim sues, they simply file bankruptcy and then form a new corporation.
Iowa is the single most radically altered landscape in the country. No state has changed more since the arrival of European settlers, and today the land is heavily “mono-cropped.” Nature abhors a lack of diversity, but pathogens love it so farmers respond with more and stronger chemicals to fight off the bugs and weeds and fungi. No one owns the airspace, so planes can fly over any land they choose. Even if the pilots are incredibly accurate, Iowa is a windy place (thus the massive increase in wind energy production here in recent years). Drift is practically inevitable.